Constraints on Media, Assembly, and Expression Taint Prospects
October 23, 2009
"Tunisian authorities are sadly no more inclined to tolerate criticism during elections than they are between them."
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

(New York) - Repressive acts and tight controls on the election process have tainted the prospects for free and fair presidential and legislative elections in Tunisia on October 25, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali proclaimed at the opening of the official campaign period on October 11 that his government has "endeavored to provide for these elections all the guarantees of transparency and honesty." But tailor-made laws have prevented the candidates from some of the stronger opposition parties from running, and severe constraints on freedoms of expression, the press, and assembly have deprived challengers from making their case to the public.

"Tunisian authorities are sadly no more inclined to tolerate criticism during elections than they are between them," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Ben Ali is expected to win a fifth five-year term easily, a prospect made possible by a 2002 constitutional amendment that eliminated term limits and raised the maximum age for presidents from 70 to 75. This amendment was the latest in a series designed to enable Ben Ali to remain in office. Amendments in 1988 and 1998 had already increased the number of permissible terms for the president.

Ben Ali took over from the ailing Habib Bourguiba in 1987 in a bloodless "medical" coup, and has never received less than 94 percent of the vote in the four elections since then. Since the 2004 legislative elections, Ben Ali's ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally party has held 152 seats out of a total of 189. Prior elections had been even more favorable to the ruling party, but in 1998 the electoral code was amended to set aside 37 seats to those parties that did not obtain an absolute majority of the vote at the national level.

A 2008 constitutional amendment, although slightly liberalizing previous rules, still imposed stringent eligibility conditions for presidential candidates. Candidates must either obtain the recommendation of 30 members of parliament or mayors - a high barrier considering how few members of parliament are not from the ruling party - or have served for two years as the elected leader of a legally recognized party by election day. This condition has disqualified all but three challengers.

Two of the three remaining presidential challengers - Mohamed Bouchiha of the Popular Unity Party, and Ahmed Inoubli of the Unionist Democratic Union - represent parties that are widely considered to be pro-government. The third, Ahmed Brahim, of the Movement for Renewal (Ettajdid), has asked for a televised debate to provide exposure in addition to the limited time that the state-controlled television has accorded each of the candidates to address the public. Ben-Ali had the most air time, claiming that the additional exposure was accorded him as president and not as a candidate.

The 2008 amendment was passed months after Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, former secretary-general of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), announced his candidacy for the 2009 election. The amendment disqualified him, since Maya Jribi took over as the party's secretary-general in 2006.

On October 10, Tunisia's Constitutional Council declared the candidacy of another challenger, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, invalid on the basis of the 2008 amendment. Although he has been the secretary-general of the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedoms (Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés, FDTL) since it obtained legal recognition seven years ago, he had not been elected to that post until this year.

The government is restricting access to media for the parties and candidates that remain in the running. Authorities seized the October 10 issue of the weekly publication of the Ettajdid party, Ettarik al-Jadid, which contained Brahim's campaign manifesto, on the grounds that it came out before the October 11 official opening of the campaign.

The Interior Ministry also demanded that Brahim remove five points from his campaign manifesto, including criticisms of what the party considered "the mentality of one-party rule" and the arbitrary disqualification of some of its candidates. Rachid Chemli, a party activist, told Human Rights Watch that groups of men had ripped down Ettajdid campaign posters from walls in cities around the country, whereas posters of the incumbent remained untouched even when they were not hung in conformity with campaign regulations.

The head of the National Observatory for Elections, the body commissioned by the government to monitor the elections, was appointed by, and reports to, Ben Ali. There is no independent monitoring of elections to ensure that they are conducted in a fair and transparent manner.

In the months preceding the presidential election, the government continued its harassment of critics and independent-minded journalists.

On September 29, according to Hamma Hamami, official spokesperson of the banned Communist Party of Tunisian Workers, plainclothes policemen assaulted him and his wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a human rights lawyer, in Carthage airport in Tunis upon his return from Paris. In Paris, Hammami had given an interview to Al Jazeera television in which he accused the Tunisian government of repression and human rights violations and explained why his party urged a boycott of the elections.

Hammami and Nasraoui's home in Tunis has been surrounded by plainclothes policemen since October 10, and police at Carthage airport prevented Hammami from traveling to France on that day to attend a conference on the Tunisian elections, claiming that a court had issued an order barring him from foreign travel. On October 20, they prevented Nasraoui from traveling for the same reason. The police did not show either of them a court order or provide any details. The judicial authorities and the director general of national security both denied knowledge of any such court order to the couple's lawyers.

On August 15, government allies ousted the board of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ) and replaced it with a new slate consisting entirely of government supporters. This action followed the release in May of a report by the group that was critical of the government's repression of the media and was precipitated by a smear campaign in the pro-governmental press against the previous board and its democratically elected president. After the release of the report, pro-government members of the board resigned and began circulating a petition in favor of ousting the current board. Journalists were reportedly threatened and intimidated into signing the petition. The ousted syndicate president, Neji Bghouri, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), "Privately owned media are pressuring their journalists to sign the petition for fear of being deprived of public support and advertising revenue." On September 11, a Tunis court ordered the transfer of the syndicate's offices to the new board. That same day, the police prevented journalists from accessing the offices in Tunis, and pushed and verbally assaulted Bghouri. Police evicted independent board member Nejiba Hamrouni, three syndicate staffers, and the Al Jazeera correspondent and human rights activist Lotfi Hajji, who were at the offices when police arrived.

Authorities also barred Florence Beaugé, the North Africa correspondent from Le Monde, from entering the country when she landed at Tunis-Carthage airport on October 20. The Associated Press (AP) reported that the official grounds for the refusal were that Beaugé "is hostile to the regime." The AP reported that a statement released by Tunisian authorities said that she "had already been informed that she would not be admitted into Tunisia," and that she had conducted "dubious activities" and had "always shown blatant malevolence and a systematically hostile bias toward Tunisia." Beaugé herself said that she had learned unofficially that the immediate reason for the expulsion was her article in Le Monde of October 8 about the police harassment of Hammami and Nasraoui.

"Even if everything is squeaky clean on voting day, elections will be free and fair in Tunisia only when the authorities stop muzzling opposition candidates, journalists, and dissidents," Whitson said.