CAIRO: “We are asking the journalists not to eat our flesh. Those were the words uttered by Tunisian journalist and activist Naziha Ragiba, also known as “Um Ziad, at an event in celebration of the International Day of Press Freedom at the Egyptian Syndicate Union last year.
On her trip to Egypt, Um Ziad claims to have noticed a number of unlabelled advertisements masked as editorials in Egyptian newspapers that glorified the rule of Tunisian President Zin Abidine Ben Ali and the state of human rights in her home country; a state ruled by a dictatorship in Um Ziad’s opinion.
Um Ziad explained that publishing “biased news beautifying the image of the Tunisian dictatorship is the same thing as “feasting on the flesh of Tunisians and their right to impartial and independent media.
On Thursday, Ben Ali celebrated his 20th anniversary as President of Tunisia; a post he acquired in a coup d’etat during the early hours of Nov. 7, 1987. That same day, Ben Ali reportedly announced himself president on national radio promising his people democracy, law and order, and abolishment of lifetime presidency.
Since then, Tunisia has undergone a series of constitutional amendments providing Ben Ali with sweeping powers and the right to run for president an indefinite number of times.
Many political activists remain behind bars in Tunisia and the country’s press environment is among one of the worst in the world, according to several press groups including Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In a new report issued by the organization Tuesday, RSF referred to Ben Ali’s rule as “a textbook case in press censorship for the past 20 years.
Hundreds of journalists and activists are reportedly prohibited from writing in Tunisia and many of them are in voluntary exile.
In commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of Ben Ali’s rule, Cairo-based rights group the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo) released the report “Who Pays the Price? In this report, the organization supports Um Ziad’s claim accusing state-run newspapers such as Al-Ahram and Al-Gomhoreya – as well as independent publications like Al-Osbou and Al-Araby – for publishing a series editorials praising Tunisia’s state of human rights and the rule of Ben Ali without labeling the pieces as paid advertisements.
“We are releasing this report because there is a lot of news being published in Egyptian newspapers that give readers the impression that Tunisia is a democratic country, Gamal Eid, director of HRInfo, said at a press conference Thursday.
“If newspapers are publishing paid advertisements, they should clearly indicate that they are ads and not editorials; like the one here in Al-Wafd, Eid said, pointing to a piece on Tunisia in Al-Wafd marked as an advertisement.
Between 2006 and 2007, HRInfo claims to have documented 25 cases of unlabelled advertisements in eight Egyptian newspapers, magazines and partisan publications. Labeled “exclusives or “special reports, the ads are often accompanied by a large photograph of Ben Ali.
Eid said that the number of unlabeled advertisements and biased news pieces increase when alleged violations of human rights occur in Tunisia.
According to HRinfo, the reports were edited by government-affiliated agencies such as the Tunisian Foreign Communication Agency or the Tunisian embassy in Cairo.
A few examples of such reports include a piece published by Al-Gomhoreya on April 13, 2007 entitled “Human Rights Occupy a Priority in Ben Ali’s Thought, embellishing human rights conditions in Tunisia. Another article ran in Al-Ahrar a few days later headlined “51 years of political reforms in Tunisia: the transition philosophy supported democracy and protected independence.
“I am not surprised that state-run media publish these kinds of pieces, said Eid, “But I was struck to see independent and partisan newspapers engaging in this kind of activity considering their endless calls for freedom of expression and human rights in Egypt. How is it acceptable to defend human rights in your own country and support a dictatorship in another?
On the same token, Eid praised the independent publications Al-Dostour and Al-Masry Al-Youm for not publishing masked propaganda of the Tunisian regime.
Eid argues that the lack of funds at many Egyptian newspapers make them more receptive to engaging in the practice of publishing unlabeled ads. However, he reiterates the fact that several of the biased news pieces were published in prominent state-run newspapers “that are not suffering from financial hardship.
HRInfo has issued letters to the chief editors of five prominent newspapers asking them to explain the nature of the materials published on Tunisia in their respective publications. None of the newspapers have responded to Eid’s request.
The report can be accessed on HRInfo’s website: http://openarab.net/en/reports/tunisia2007/tunisia.shtml