Tunisia's 'Black Book' Strikes at Media Freedom

The office of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has compiled a book that lists journalists and intellectuals accused of colluding with the former authoritarian regime and assisting in polishing its image in Tunisia and abroad.

The communications arm of the presidency stated in the report that the list is based on the archive that was found in the Carthage presidential palace after Marzouki took office December 2011.

Entitled The Propaganda Apparatus Under Ben Ali: The Black Book, the report looks into how the previous regime used the media to serve its own political agenda and sought to control the flow of information coming out of Tunisia. The regime conveyed its instructions through the Tunisian Agency of External Communication, known by its French acronym ATCE, which was dissolved after the Jan. 14 revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime.

The report reveals how the ATCE acted as the regime's PR agency, using its huge budget to implement the instructions of Ben Ali's political advisers. The ATCE recruited local journalists to write articles praising the system and camouflaging the human rights violations in return for large sums of money. The rewards ranged between 50 and 3,000 Dinars ($30 to $1,800), depending on the article and the service.

Ben Ali's propaganda apparatus not only controlled the media coverage in Tunisia, but also sought to direct how the whole world viewed the country. According to the report, the ATCE, operating through Tunisia's diplomatic representatives abroad, managed to get some correspondents working for foreign press agencies like AFP, Reuters, UIP, and AP to agree to favorably orient their coverage in exchange for money.

The Black Book has stirred controversy in Tunisia. While some people enjoyed airing the dirty laundry and sharing the juicy details on social networks, others criticized the presidency's handling of the archives. Lawyer Wahid Ferchichi, a transitional justice consultant, questioned the very legality of the publishers' use of the archives. "The president's team does not even have the right to look at the archives. Before going as far processing, selecting and publishing the information, one ought to question whether or not they have the right to open those files and look at their content," Ferchichi said.

Ferchichi's position was echoed by media expert Hichem Snoussi, who said that the report is ambiguous and was not conducted according to vigorous standards of research. "We don't even know its methodology or the people who drafted it. It is a narrow report and it might bear a partisan dimension," Snoussi said.

Snoussi added that publishing such a book cannot be considered a step forward in reforming and ameliorating the media scene in Tunisia, especially when taking into account the government's poor record on media freedom. "This government did not achieve the necessary progress in media reform. They obstructed our efforts to reform the media sector. They refused to pass the new press code. They prosecuted journalists and artists," said Snoussi.

The current government came under attack when it froze the new press code drafted after the revolution by the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform, an independent body tasked with liberalizing and reforming the media sector in Tunisia. Instead of enacting the newly drafted code, the government went back to using Ben Ali's penal code to try journalists and artists. (In the photo above, leaders of the Tunisian Union of Journalists rally to demand the release of jailed journalist Zied el-Heni.)

Journalists widely viewed the book as an attempt to intimidate them. "This is another political maneuver to tame the media. They want to threaten us," stated a journalist who worked for the newspaper of the former ruling party for more than 15 years, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

"Many journalists who surrendered to the pressures of the previous regime are now trying break with the practices of the past and improve the quality of their work," she continued. "But the government is not content with that because it wants media to serve its political agenda."

The journalist also noted that publishing the book would hamper the path of transitional justice in Tunisia. The Tunisian minister of human rights and transitional justice, Samir Dilou (who is part of Marzouki's ruling coalition government) explained that the timing was badly chosen given that the country's Constituent Assembly is scheduled to examine the transitional justice law in the next few weeks. The transitional justice law, drafted jointly by the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice and civil society associations, aims to reveal the truth about the abuses perpetrated under Ben Ali's regime, hold the offenders accountable, and provide reparations for the regime's victims.

"The presidency did not respect the process of transitional justice," he said.

Commenting on the publication of the Black Book, the International Center for Transitional Justice said that "specific and ad hoc efforts may undermine an overall project for transparency and accountability for human rights abuses.... Transitional justice must not be selective or vindictive."

In anticipation of such criticism, the authors of the Black Book said in its introduction that it was not written "with the aim of retaliation or schadenfreude." Rather, they aimed to help Tunisia break from the old practices and avoid reproducing "the same propaganda apparatus" because it is "dangerous for the nascent democracy."

Marzouki said last year in a televised interview that he would not publish the archives he found in the presidential palace without a law in place, and that it would be unethical to use the archive to serve one's political interests.

One year later, not only did his government use the archive, but it accompanied its publication with 12 pages recounting the activism history of the current President Moncef Marzouki, who was introduced as "one of the most prominent figures to resist dictatorship in spite of the harassment of the security forces and judicial pressure."

It's hard to see such language as anything other than a new kind of propaganda.

Asma Ghribi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She was formerly managing editor of the Tunisia Live website.



Another American Killed in Benghazi

On Dec. 5, the city of Benghazi witnessed more than five killings in less than 24 hours. One of the targets this time was an American national, Ronnie Smith, who was working as a chemistry teacher at the Benghazi International School. It is not clear who is behind the killing.

Smith was reportedly targeted in the Fweihat district of Benghazi where he lived, and was shot multiple times while on his morning jog. The U.S. embassy in Libya has a warning against all travel to Benghazi, but since Smith considered himself "Libya's best friend," as his Twitter account indicates, he chose to stay behind in the troubled city to continue teaching.

Benghazi's security situation has deteriorated significantly since the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on the city's U.S. consulate on Sept. 11, 2012. The extremist group Ansar al-Sharia (affiliated with al Qaeda) is linked to the U.S. consulate attack. The group is also linked to the explosions and the assassinations that have plagued the city for more than a year, targeting army and police officers, as well as lawyers, judges, and activists. The militants have previously targeted other international schools. On March 3, members of the jihadist group stormed the European School to protest some of the teaching materials used for its curriculum, which they said contradicted sharia law.

Recently, the national army's Special Forces unit attempted to fight back against Ansar al-Sharia after clashes broke out between the two militias on Nov. 25. (The photo above depicts members of the national army traveling through Benghazi on Nov. 25.) Since then, many Libyan civilians have come out in support of the army, participating in civil disobedience and public protests against the group in Benghazi and Derna. As of Dec. 5, Derna's bloody demonstrations have already lasted five days, in which the jihadist militants fired live rounds of ammunition on peaceful protesters. The number of assassinations has increased, and frequent explosions have led to several deaths and injuries.

Back in Benghazi, a few days after the clashes between the army and Ansar al-Sharia militants, leaders of the national army came on TV to call for a ceasefire and plead with the group to stop "terrorizing" the people. There are reports that the militants have now returned to their posts in Benghazi as part of a deal to stop the fighting in the city. Nevertheless, it looks like the deal did not include a condition to end the assassinations of police, army personnel, and ordinary civilians.

The fact that military commanders were pressed to plead with the jihadist group at all is extremely worrying. It indicates that the group could be more powerful than previously thought. During the press conference, Col. Wanis Abu Khamada (commander of the Special Forces units) said, vaguely, that the army is not only targeting Ansar al-Sharia, but is fighting other threats as well. Given the recent reports of foreign nationals among the group's ranks, Abu Khamada's guarded comments could indicate the army's hesitancy to censure the well-trained and quickly growing group.

If the weak Libyan authorities can barely manage an appropriate response to local armed groups and militias, it is impossible to see how they would be able to deal with more influential and organized groups like Ansar al-Sharia. The government, led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, took a clear position against Ansar al-Sharia and vowed to give the army and police their full support as they work to establish control. However, Libya's General National Congress (the country's legislative body) is divided on the issue; some members continue to defend the group's actions.

Those who targeted Smith may have done so because they saw the effect that Chris Stevens' assassination had on the U.S. involvement in Libya. Their main goal is to destabilize and undermine the country's transition -- and they have deduced that killing Americans is an effective way of doing just that. But rather than withdrawing, Libya's friends in the West need to increase their engagement and identify trustworthy partners in the transition government that they can work with to stabilize the country. Given that some of the government's institutions have been infiltrated by elements that support and defend groups like Ansar al-Sharia, foreign intervention will need to be measured and informed. A Libya controlled by jihadis on the doorsteps of Europe is not an option -- but recent events have shown that the transitional government is already unable to fully manage the devolving security situation. If the United States and other foreign governments pull out of Libya any further, they will be handing Libya to extremists. That is exactly what they want.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.