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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
09TUNIS287 2009-05-13 10:15:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tunis
Cable title:  

JOURNALIST UNION LEADER COMES UNDER PRESSURE

Tags:   PHUM PGOV PREL KDEM KPAO TS 
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VZCZCXYZ0001
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHTU #0287/01 1331015
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 131015Z MAY 09
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6279
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
					  C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 000287 

SIPDIS

NEA/MAG (PATTERSON/HAYES); DRL (JOHNSTONE/KLARMAN)
LONDON AND PARIS FOR NEA WATCHER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/12/2019
TAGS: PHUM PGOV PREL KDEM KPAO TS
SUBJECT: JOURNALIST UNION LEADER COMES UNDER PRESSURE

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

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Summary
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1. (C) The leadership of the National Syndicate of Tunisian
Journalists (SNJT), the only legal journalists union, came
under GOT pressure shortly after releasing the union's annual
report on press freedom in Tunisia. SNJT President Neji
Bghouri reportedly tried for over an hour to present the
SNJT's report on press freedom, which mildly criticized the
GOT, during a conference on May 4, but was shouted down by
pro-GOT journalists. According to journalist Lotfi Hajji and
other attendees, the conference devolved into shoving between
Bghouri and GOT supporters. Days afterwards, officials from
the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of
Communication were reportedly coercing journalists to sign a
no-confidence petition regarding Bghouri's performance as
SNJT president, threatening them with reprisals including the
loss of their jobs if they refused. Independent groups have
reported several similar incidents over the last few months,
and they attribute the increased pressure to the GOT's desire
to quash dissent in the run-up to presidential and
legislative elections this fall. End Summary.



--------------------------


Fighting for Press Freedom, Literally


--------------------------





2. (C) A May 4 press conference held by the National
Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) devolved into a
shoving match. The press conference was intended to
introduce the SNJT's annual report on press freedom in
Tunisia, a report which mildly rebuked the government for
limits on press freedom and working conditions for
journalists. According to journalist Lotfi Hajji, who works
for al-Jazeera but who has never received QT press
credentials, pro-GOT supporters shouted down SNJT President
Neji Bghouri for over an hour. He and As-Sabah/BBC
journalist Kamel Ben Younes eventually were seen pushing and
shoving one another. Hajji said copies of the report were
distributed to the press, but he did not think the SNJT would
attempt to hold another conference. The incident is the
latest in a string of problems between pro-GOT and
independent forces within Tunisia's only legal journalists
union. Internal disagreements escalated after the SNJT
announced it would not endorse a presidential candidate.



3. (C) On May 7, reports surfaced that Ministry of the
Interior (MOI) and Ministry of Communication (MOC) personnel
were forcing journalists, including those of the Dar Assabah
Group (recently bought by President Ben Ali's son-in-law,
Sakhr Al-Matri) and Tunis Afrique Press Agency (the
quasi-official news agency), to sign a petition declaring
no-confidence in Bghouri's leadership of the SNJT.
Journalists were reportedly threatened with reprisals
including dismissal if they did not comply. According to
Hajji, Bghouri's tenure as president lasts another year and a
half. The only way to remove him is via an extraordinary
congress. One way for this to happen would be if four of the
SNJT's current board members resign, automatically triggering
an extraordinary congress and new elections. Three board
members have already attempted to resign, but the executive
committee refused to acknowledge their resignations. Another
option, however, would be to declare no-confidence in
Bghouri's performance as SNJT president (the object of the
petition). This would force a re-allocation of roles within
the SNJT Executive Council. Bghouri would still be part of
the council, but not president. Hajji speculated that the
GOT would make things difficult for Bghouri because he
criticized the government shortly before elections.



--------------------------


Press Freedom


--------------------------





4. (C) Contemplating liberties in Tunisia in general, Hajji
opined that while democratic countries may be able to work
closely with authoritarian regimes, he did not feel these
relationships were durable because an authoritarian regime
can change its mind at any time for any reason. On the other
hand, he said, democracies are durable regimes and have a
history of cooperating with each other over the long term.
He added that, in his opinion, the best thing foreign
embassies in Tunisia can do is to publically support
reformers. The visibility their attention brings provides
some measure of protection to activists, and occasionally
prompts a governmental response to concerns raised by civil
society. Hajji said sustained contact with civil society,
though meetings and conferences, as well as statements of
support, are also helpful. As the former Secretary General
of an unrecognized journalists' union, Hajji said he would
have liked to work with the Middle East Partnership
Initiative. Unfortunately, this was not possible as other
members of his organization were reluctant to accept US
funding because of American foreign policy in the Middle
East. Though Hajji himself did not agree with this
reasoning, he was unable to persuade the rest of the
organization.


--------------------------


Comment


--------------------------





5. (C) The reports emerging from the SNJT are consistent
with other stories from opposition groups indicative of
increased GOT pressure in the run up to the upcoming
presidential and legislative elections. Domestic and
international groups have pressed for genuine reforms prior
to elections, including access to the media for opposition
parties. The GOT's focus, meanwhile, seems to be on quelling
criticism such as that contained in the SNJT report. Bghouri
has surprised observers initially skeptical of his reformist
credentials by emerging as a quietly but staunchly
independent first president of SNJT. Certainly from the
GOT's vantage point, Bghouri personifies the autonomous
tendency of the organization; hence the attempts to reign him
in. Bhgouri has dodged the bullet for now by refusing to
acknowledge the resignations of the pro-GOT members on the
board. Unless he can rally the majority of the SNJT
membership to refuse to sign the no-confidence petition,
however, his days as president are numbered. How the SNJT
dispute plays out will have long term repercussions. Should
the journalists' union lose its independent status,
journalists would lose an advocate for better working
conditions and freedom of information. End Comment.
Godec