Tunisian Newspapers Scrutinized for Ties to Ben Ali

The Tunisian press has found itself under increasing scrutiny for the lingering presence of ties to the old regime.

The National Union of Journalists announced plans to publish a “blacklist” of names of journalists known by the group to be corrupted by involvement with ex-leader Zine El Abidine’s propaganda ministry.

At the same time, the Tunisian newspaper Al Maghreb, banned under Ben Ali because of its affiliation with Habib Bourguiba’s regime, published last week a list of the sums of money each major Tunisian newspaper received from the same propaganda ministry, called the ATCE in its French acronym. Some major papers received amounts equaling three quarters of a million dollars a year, a significant amount in a country where the average yearly salary is just over 4,000 USD.

The stirrings of a reformist purge provoked defensive reactions from Tunisia’s press establishment.

“The publication of these figures has not been put in context,” said Sofien Ben Farhat, an editor for the French language daily La Presse, recipient of over 750,000 USD a year from the ATCE.

“The only newspaper that didn’t receive money from the regime is Al Mawkef,” he went on, referring to the press organ of a dissident party. “All the other newspapers received money from the ATCE. We can’t possibly shut down all these newspapers; we need to move on.”

The highest amount received by a private Arabic-language newspaper was the 750,000 USD a year given to Assabah, one of Tunisia’s most widely-read dailies. Saleh Atia, an editor for the paper, expressed a similar attitude to that held by Farhat, stressing the fact that Assabah was far from the only paper to receive money from the state propaganda agency.

Perhaps even more upsetting to the Tunisian journalistic status quo will be the National Journalist Union’s report on corrupt journalists. The Ben Ali administration used a variety of techniques to control national media, including embedding ATCE agents as fake reporters throughout the press. Many of these agents still hold their posts, spies without a state to spy for.

Tunisian newspaper editors expressed mixed feelings about the forthcoming report.

Atia was all for the blacklist, and even urged the union to go further, stating, “The union has to be really courageous and follow up the publication of the list by withdrawing the press credentials from the journalists involved and taking back the money that they got [from the ATCE].”

At the same time, the editor sought to underline the distinction between the actions of individual actors and the organizations that employed them.

“Any institution may have a number of corrupted employees. That does not mean that the whole institution is corrupt or that its credibility is automatically harmed by it. If we were to denounce all the newspapers that were involved with the Ben Ali regime we wouldn’t have many of them left,” said Atia.

Ben Farhat of La Presse was also supportive of the list, but fearful that the process could turn into a form of vigilante justice, and advocated passing through the courts before publishing names.

“It needs to have a judicial aspect; these cases need be taken to the court. The court will make sure that it doesn’t turn into a witch hunt,” said Farhat.

According to Nejiba Hamrouni, the president of the journalist’s union, the committee is a response to a request made by the journalists that participated in a convention last June. She stated that it was a request made by both journalists and those who have been victim not only of corrupt journalists but also of corrupt media shareholders.

Among other events, the committee will investigate the circumstances of the “putsch” orchestrated against the union’s executive board in 2009, when Ben Ali agents attempted a takeover of the organization.

(www.tunisia-live.net / 16.11.2011)

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