Tunis Hosts International Congress of Journalists

Journalists attending the 30th Congress of the International Federation of Journalists march in solidarity with journalists killed for their work in downtown Tunis on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Photo by William Edwards.

A four-day congress of international journalists continued in Tunis today. Tuesday June 11th marked the launch of the 30th congress of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which claims to be the world’s largest organization of journalists. This is the first time that Tunisia hosts the IFJ congress, this time at the invitation of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). Over 300 journalists are in attendance, according to SNJT.

Only the first day of the event was public while the rest of the meetings were reserved largely for internal organizational work such as elections for leadership and debate over internal statutes, according to a program shared online by the IFJ.

The opening session of the congress drew a high profile guest speaker: Tunisia’s president.

“It’s unacceptable today that a journalist be imprisoned because of what they write,” president Beji Caïd Essebsi was quoted as saying in his address to the congress at the Mechtel Hotel by multiple news outlets, including the state owned La Presse.

No journalists are currently recorded as being imprisoned for their work in Tunisia according to a survey of press freedom organizations. However, in recent months numerous bloggers have faced criminal prosecution and in some cases prison sentences for insulting state officials such as President Essebsi himself. Human Rights documented several such cases in January this year.

“The continued use of repressive, authoritarian-era laws to silence bloggers for peaceful criticism is indefensible eight years after the revolution,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in an official press release at the time.

Other prominent journalists have faced police harassment, detention, interrogation, and military tribunals in recent years, according to various press freedom watchdog groups.

The relationship between the IFJ and Tunisia appears to be better than it was under the prerevolutionary authoritarian government led by President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali. The IFJ had at that time criticized the repressive practices of the regime led by Ben Ali. In 2004, the IFJ had suspended the Tunisian Journalists’ Association for its presentation of a press freedom award to Ben Ali, according to the news aggregation website AllAfrica.

After the 2011 uprising, many of the traditional limitations on press freedom in Tunisia were lifted. Amidst warfare and violence targeting journalists as well as other forms of repression and policing of journalists in other countries in the region, Tunisia has particularly stood out in the region as a space affording greater press freedom. In November 2018, when the crown prince of Saudi Arabia came to Tunis on an official visit one month after a Saudi team had killed Washington Post journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, the crown prince’s arrival was met with a popular protest in downtown Tunis. At the time, the SNJT draped a banner in front of its headquarters with an image of the crown prince using a chainsaw and the comment “No to the desecration of the revolutionary land of Tunisia.”

A banner hanging on the headquarters of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) to protest the visit of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in November 2018, one month after the killing of the Washington Post journalist and critic of the Saudi regime Jamal Khashoggi. Photo by Meshkal news team, November 26, 2018.

As part of the IFJ congress on Tuesday evening, journalists from Tunisia and around the world participated in a march expressing solidarity with journalists killed for their work around the world.

Neji Bghouri, the head of the SNJT, walked at the front of the the police-protected march. Marchers chanted “solidarity” and held photos of killed journalists.

“We are living in a region that has the biggest catastrophes targeting journalists, in Libya, in Yemen in Iraq, in Syria, there is the biggest killed journalists in the world” Bghouri had earlier told Al Ghad TV on the sidelines of the conference.

“Having a stronger presence of journalism reminds people of the sacrifices that have been made in Tunisia and also that you can’t take the free press for granted,” Marcus Strom, one visiting attendee of the IFJ congress from Australia told Meshkal during the solidarity march. “I think journalists across the world stand in solidarity with a free press here in Tunisia.”

William Edwards contributed to this article.