Since December 2004, CJFE has been a member of the IFEX-Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition that grew to include 21 IFEX members and several key local partners. The IFEX-TMG Group led a long-term campaign to monitor and document Tunisia’s freedom of expression and related rights, including freedom of assembly and independence of the judiciary. As the IFEX-TMG wraps up its formal monitoring role it is a time to reflect on the good work done and the future.
The impetus for this group came from the United Nations’ announcement that the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) would be held in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. Given Tunisia’s bleak record of rigorous Internet censorship and legislated imprisonment of journalists, free expression advocacy groups were alarmed by the news that the country would play host to a forum on open communications.
Several IFEX members, including CJFE, discussed their concerns about WSIS at the June 2004 IFEX General Meeting in Azerbaijan. After these 12 organisations issued a joint letter urging the UN to reconsider the location of the conference, they formed IFEX-TMG. While WSIS went forward in Tunis in November 2005, IFEX-TMG maintained its position condemning the Tunisian government’s disregard for free expression rights by issuing a critical report of the country’s conditions for censorship before the conference and by cancelling official participation in the forum.
Veteran journalist and CJFE Board member Bob Carty remembers experiencing persecution by plainclothes police officers firsthand while attending WSIS in Tunis in November 2005:
“The Tunisian government always denied that it violated freedom of expression. But, when they hosted the Information Summit, they sent their secret police to block us in the street to prevent us from simply meeting with civil society groups. In my hotel room I documented at least 23 human rights sites on the Internet blocked by the government. Official speeches that were critical of the Tunisians speech were blocked or replaced with music. We were tailed and intimidated. But at the end of the day it was more comical than threatening. The regime revealed to the world just how desperate it was to censor free speech. And free speech advocates took hope.”
Long after the WSIS-based tensions that inspired the group’s creation, IFEX-TMG remained active monitors of freedom of expression violations in the country. Activities included organizing fact-finding missions to Tunisia, releasing critical reports, and statements drawing attention to free expression violations in the country. IFEX-TMG continued to develop important connections with local human rights advocacy groups.
Towards the end of 2010, Tunisia’s political climate began to change as resistance to the nearly 25-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali progressed. By the second week of January 2011, an outpouring of civic unrest across Tunisia led Ben-Ali to flee the country, and inspired other national protests across the Middle East and North Africa in a collective revolution known as the Arab Spring. Following this first ousting of a leader due to a public uprising, Tunisia transitioned to a democratic system and held the country’s first free elections in October 2011.
Since Ben-Ali’s resignation in January 2011, local NGOs and advocacy groups are no longer restricted from operating openly and freely within their country and many international organisations have established offices in Tunisa. While free expression rights are still at risk in Tunisia, Tunisian officials have shown some promising signs of upholding media independence. Local organizations are better placed within a democratic system to report on violations and free expression news from the ground, while continuing to work in connection with international advocacy groups.
With these developments it means the free expression community is now better placed to continue to report on developments in the country, support Tunisian colleagues and spearhead any relevant actions and campaigns. Therefore, as the need for an external monitoring body greatly diminished, IFEX-TMG was dissolved as a formal group in January 2013. CJFE is proud to have been a founding member of this unique coalition, and to have helped establish meaningful connections and bolster effective mechanisms for free expression advocacy in Tunisia.
However, the work in Tunisia has not come to an end. Through the IFEX Campaigns program, CJFE will continue to support joint actions and initiatives concerning free expression in the country. Just last week, we added our voice to an open letter to Tunisian authorities regarding the escalation of death threats, censorship and physical attacks on journalists and writers in the country.