By Antoine Lambroschini (AFP) – Oct 17, 2012
TUNIS — The Tunisian government vowed on Wednesday to implement two decrees, passed last year but not yet enacted, guaranteeing press freedom and regulating audiovisual media, a key demand of journalists striking nationwide.
"The coalition government has decided to implement decrees 115 and 116 regulating the information sector," the official TAP news agency reported, citing an announcement by the prime minister's office.
The application of the two decrees, signed into law in November last year by then president Foued Mebazaa, had been blocked by the coalition government led by the ruling Islamist party Ennahda that came to power in late 2011.
The authorities judged that the decrees were incomplete but never amended them, fuelling accusations that they had assumed discretionary powers over the media industry.
Many journalists had expressed concern at the government's failure to apply decree 115, which clarifies the rights of journalists and prohibits "restrictions on the freedom to disseminate information."
Decree 116 stipulates the creation of an independent authority to guarantee "the freedom of audiovisual communication," and charged with issuing radio and television licences.
Wednesday's announcement came as journalists observed a nationwide strike, after months of rising tensions with the authorities, which they accuse of curbing press freedom and seeking to control public media groups.
Zied El Heni, a senior member of the national journalists' union (SNJT) that called the strike, welcomed Wednesday's announcement, but questioned why it took the government so long to reach the decision.
"We regret that so much time has been lost. We could have avoided many problems and disputes for the sector and for the country," El Heni said, urging the rapid implementation of the decrees.
The SNJT hailed the high level of participation in the strike, which it said exceeded 90 percent.
Several hundred journalists staged a protest in the afternoon at the trade union's headquarters, shouting slogans calling for a free press, some of them covering their mouths with stickers that read "censored."
The strike was widely observed by those press groups at the heart of a controversy that has gripped Tunisia since the summer, whose staff accuse the government of manipulating editorial content by appointing loyal directors.
The most high profile case relates to the state-owned Dar Essabah press group, whose controversial new director was appointed by the government in August.
Six journalists at Dar Essabah, which owns Arabic-language daily Essabah and French-language newspaper Le Temps, have been on hunger strike since last Friday after talks with the authorities broke down.
One of them, Lamia Cherif, was rushed to hospital on a drip on Wednesday, an AFP journalist reported, saying she remained conscious, but appeared very weak.
As well as wanting controversial new directors of public media groups replaced, the creation of an independent media body to regulate the industry was one of the the striking journalists' key demands.
The authority charged with carrying out those reforms announced in early July that it had shut down after failing to achieve its objective, accusing the government of censorship.
The coalition government, headed by the Islamist party Ennahda, has denied undermining press freedom, seen as a fundamental achievement of the revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and touched off the Arab Spring.
It has said it is seeking to purge an industry still controlled by members of the deposed regime, and has complained of being subjected to a relentless campaign of media criticism that mainly serves the interests of its political opponents.
In its statement on Wednesday, the government said it was open to dialogue, "to respond positively to all the issues involving the information sector, and those which concern the social situation in certain media establishments."
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