Tunisia: From school for tyrants to academy of liberty

On the day the Tunisian National Quartet for Dialogue was announced as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, here’s my keynote speech from my last public engagement in Tunis as chair of the international IFEX-Tunisian Monitoring Group. It was given in December 2011, on the day that former dissident Moncef Marzouki was sworn in as President of a post-dictatorship Tunisia. The country never fails to inspire.

A year ago this month, followed pointedly by not-so-secret police, I travelled to Tozeur in south-west Tunisia to meet Judge Kalthoum Kennou, then in a kind of internal exile, a punishment for her supposedly ‘simple’ request that Tunisia be subject to the rule of law, applied by independent judges, free of state interference.

Since 2005 and the World Summit I had been travelling regularly to Tunisia for my organisation, Index on Censorship, and since 2007 as chairman of the IFEX-TMG.

In all my visits, there was rarely much good news to take home, and last December was no different. You wondered simply, would things ever change? The US didn’t appear to care; the Brits were anxious; the French came on holiday. Back in London, Toronto, Baghdad, Brussels, I found myself constantly being asked by colleagues, why this focus on Tunisia. There were apparently worse cases, Burma, Belarus, Mexico, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Zimbabwe…

My argument was this. All over the world human rights NGOs were under attack like never before. New tactics were applied, old ones were perfected. Every country would have a favourite method of repression: Surveillance – out in the open to intimidate; in secret, to disrupt and spread suspicion among the innocent; The use of agent provocateurs to sabotage independent public gatherings. Rigged votes on professional bodies and trade unions; The use of internal exile to silence or marginalise dissident voices; Threats, bribery, state influence over the private media; page after page of deadheaded propaganda or vicious hate speech.

The deployment of state-sponsored pseudo NGOs to confuse the rights agenda abroad. The blocking of legal registration of a free media and independent rights groups; the banning of peaceful political activity; Ridiculous administrative judicial reviews to tie up independent groups in endless, pointless court cases for years.

The expensive lobbying of sympathetic foreign politicians, the bugging of their embassies in Tunis. Travel bans, Internet blocking, satellite jamming, planted drugs, falsely alleged corruption, tax and currency charges, and when all else failed, violence, dragging dissidents out onto the street and beating the hell out of them

Everywhere else you could see some of these things all of the time; or all of these things some of the time (to borrow a phrase). But only in Tunisia would you see all of these things all of the time. Time was that if you wanted to see the full achievement of early 16th century artists you had to go to Florence; then, if you wanted to see the full achievement of early 21st century dictators you had to come to Tunis.

The country had become a kind of testbed for dictators and for human rights campaigners alike. Sinatra-style, if a human rights group could make it here, they could make it anywhere.

So what do you do if you live in a country that is a global inspiration to tyrants everywhere? You overthrow it in a revolution that is equally global, equally inspiring, to the enemies of tyranny. The challenge is to turn Tunisia from a school for dictators into an academy of liberty.

I’m not going to say I predicted change here before it happened. I had a sense that the regime was hollow, it is true, that unlike some countries the regime here had not laid deep roots. It kept its wealth and power to a relatively small gang of associates. It did not cultivate powerful international friends, it did not understand the strength of independent local organisation, particularly in the trade union sector, which I’d seen in Tozuer.

It did not understand the renewed confidence of the independent legal establishment which I’d seen in Madame Kennou, and in an afternoon spent at the Palace of Justice with Mohammad Abbou, that same month. It overestimated the impact and credibility of its increasingly corrupt media allies. And perhaps above all, it massively underestimated the fizzing energy of Tunisia’s youth, online and on the streets.

What it did do was to encourage us to persevere with the IFEX-TMG, even if without much hope of more than occasional victories like the freeing of Fahim Boukadous.

I always thought the strength of the IFEX-TMG lay in the diversity of skills and expertise in its membership Now we are moving on from international lobbying, the challenge is in the building of a free, professional media, an independent judiciary and a vibrant, empowered civil society here in Tunis.

This meeting and the campaigns and other meetings that follow must ensure that the emerging constitution preserves the principles of the revolution and to embed the right to freedom of expression in Tunisia’s legal, political, constitutional systems. So it is right that IFEX-TMG experts like Article 19, the World Association of Newspapers and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information step forward to help build capacity and embed international standards here.

It’s not been easy for those Tunisians who have followed the same path. Here I would like to pay special tribute to Kamal Labidi. For as long as i have been associated with the network, Kamal has been the key guiding figure in the work of the IFEX-TMG, and he brought the same expertise, knowledge and clear-sighted sense of principle to his work with INRIC. I believe that his principled decision tof prioritise the building of a sound foundation for a future Tunisian media, even ahead of righting the wrongs of the past, was a brave one, and the right one.

I know very well indeed that there are people here who will disagree with me. But even though I at first doubted that he would be allowed by the remnants of the old power to do it, I think now that if in time, as I hope, the Tunisian media becomes a model for the region, it will be thanks to his groundwork this past year.

If Kamal was my guide, Sihem Bensedrine was my inspiration. I’ve seen her courage, not only here over years, but also working with me in sometimes highly dangerous circumstances, in defending journalists rights in Iraq in the early years of the US-British occupation. It’s not an overstatement to say that she almost singlehandedly kept global attention on the Tunisian case for several years.

But in principle and passion they were the ying and yang of the Tunisian contribution to the IFEX-TMG, so that they should have fallen out over strategy came as no surprise, as sad as it was.

But they are now just two people in a nation’s worth of reformist media workers, civil society activists, lawyers & judges, and they are having their say too, here, today, tomorrow and the weeks, months and years to come.

This will not be my last visit to Tunisia, but it will be my last as chair of the IFEX-TMG. I was reminded this morning of what must have been one of my first speeches as chairman of the IFEX-TMG. It was in Washington DC in 2007, an attempt by us to get the US congress and state department to respond seriously to repression in Tunisia.

The regime sent over its fake NGOs to attack us and try and undermine our case. On the panel with me was Moncef Marzouki, who dealt with the abuse with honest good manners. It would have been nice to have him with me again today, but as you know, today he has another appointment.

The good guys win in the end. It just takes time… Thank you for allowing me the privilege of sharing a little of your remarkable achievements over the last few years.

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