The National Union of Tunisian Journalists was created this month in place of the long-standing, clearly government-linked Association of Tunisian Journalists (ATJ), said a report by the WAN-operated Arab Press Network.
My automatic response is this is an incredibly positive step forward.
The union, headed by newly elected representatives, stands symbolic of a growing resistance to the Tunisian regime and its oppression and censorship of the press, most recently in the form of the highly criticized jailing of Slim Boukhdir.
Writer for the London-based paper, al Quds al Arabi, and correspondent for a number of Arab News websites, such as Al Arabiya, Boukhdir was arrested in November of last year. He was stopped on a bus on his way to receive a passport that had for years up until that very day been refused to him.
On January 18th, an extreme one-year sentence, handed down on the charges of using “insulting behaviour towards an official,” being an “affront to public decency” and “refusing to produce his identity papers,” was upheld in a court of appeals.
“Tunisian journalists are often jailed on grounds unrelated to their work so that the authorities cannot be accused of censorship,” the NGO, Reporters Without Borders (RWO) said in the article quoted on their website.
“But no one is fooled. Boukhdir is paying the price for being outspoken. Banned from working for the government newspaper that used to employ him and harassed by the police, Boukhdir has never stopped covering the human rights violations committed under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.”
So where does this very recent news leave the country that has seen its previously – some would say exemplary in the context of journalism in the Middle East – independent ATJ slowly placed under the control of the government?
Tunisia rose to a spot one slot higher than Egypt’s depressing 146th rank in the 2007 World Press Freedom Index, the latest annual listing of 169 surveyed countries by RWO.
The North African state is continuously in the news for its police assaults on outspoken reporters, harassment through intensive government surveillance and the jailing of a number of local journalists.
With history in mind in the form of its 40-year-old union predecessor, how much “hope” can there really be in the industry’s future?