Today – Tunisia’s Republic Day – many of the dedicated free expression activists who led the independent media’s struggle against intimidation and censorship are up in arms again. Years on from the beginning of the Arab Spring and regime change in Tunisia, many of the people who benefited from the corruption and cronyism of the former Ben Ali regime are slowly returning to public life.
To those who suffered from it, any steps to rehabilitate some of the high profile names of regime years are unacceptable. The trigger was the appearance of former Foreign Minister – and former regime state information chief – Abdelwahab Abdallah among president Beji Caid Essebsi’s official guests at a ceremony to mark the founding of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May. Abdallah was jailed for 18 months after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011. A proposed bill offering an amnesty to the deposed regime’s architects and agents led to street protests in May.
Abdallah still faces charges for a corruption case related to his management of national television. Some of the major figures of that era, and many who have emerged since co-signed a protest letter in response to attempts to rehabilitate what they called a “leading symbol of the old regime”. As then information minister, he founded the regime’s Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE) in 1989, which swiftly became the “absolute master of disinformation and propaganda,” and central to his strategy.
Documents found after the regime fell detailed how the agency manipulated the media. Cronies of the regime were granted profitable media licences. Favoured publications were flooded with hundreds of thousands of euros worth of overpriced government advertising contracts. Independent media was starved of funds. The “Système Abdelwahab Abdallah” as the co-signers called it, actively resisted the establishment of journalistic ethics and roughly silenced, intimidated and repressed most of them.
Signatories of the statement warn that Tunisian freedom of the press is still threatened by “clientelism, mediocrity and lack of professionalism”. The signatories of the statement pledged to “fight against the restoration of authoritarianism through the media” and to defend the right of Tunisians to information, the basis of a democratic, civic republic.
Before being appointed to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abdallah was ambassador to Britain from 1988 to 1990 and Ben Ali’s spokesman between 1990 and 2003. After leaving the Foreign Ministry in 2005, he served as a political advisor to Ben Ali, up to his fall in 2011.