Tunisians close book on era of obsessive censorship

Thu, Jan 27, 2011, 00:00

LOOKING OUT the window of her bookshop on Avenue Bouguiba, where two dozen curious faces are pressed against the pane to catch a glimpse at her latest display, Selma Jabbes is a picture of quiet satisfaction.

The crowds outside the Al Kitab bookshop are staring at a selection of newly arrived titles under the heading Livres interdits, a selection of books banned under the regime of deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and now freely available for the first time.

Most concern Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, political repression, Islamism and corruption in the regime.

Al Kitab is still awaiting delivery of its first order of banned books from Europe; those in the window were donated by readers and put on display “to give an idea of how we suffered here”, says Jabbes, a softly-spoken woman greeted by name by many of her customers.

Under Ben Ali’s rule, booksellers required a visa from the interior ministry for every work they wanted to import, and the process could take several months. The list of sensitive subject matter was long and ever-changing, but virtually every foreign title that touched on the president or his entourage, or which denigrated his policies, was strictly prohibited.

“We even had a schoolbook banned because it reproduced a caricature of the president,” she says incredulously.

Situated in the heart of Tunis, just across the street from the imposing grey interior ministry, Al Kitab – a bright two-storey shop with a wide selection in French and Arabic – was closely watched by the police. “All the spies were here regularly,” Jabbes says. “We sometimes had books taken even after they were authorised, and we had regular visits to check that we weren’t hiding banned books.”

Among the many passersby who stop to look at the window display, quite a few say they have already read some of the banned titles.

Khaled Ben Gamra, a secondary school teacher, says Tunisians would smuggle them in from abroad and that digital copies could easily be found online.

“Everyone knew about them, but nobody talked about them,” he says. “The president knew that the people knew his family were thieves.”

For Tunisian journalists, the lifting of censorship has brought similarly radical change. Interference from the interior ministry was routine, says Nadya B’chir, a staff reporter at the daily Le Temps, but journalists were so well aware of the “red lines” that self-censorship was just as common.

“We hid the truth,” she says flatly. “We wanted to avoid all problems, all conflicts. We became self-censors. Writing the article, you would say to yourself, ‘there’s no point writing about that, because it won’t appear anyway’. Some red lines were fixed – the presidency and the ruling RCD party, for example – but articles on economic and social issues could also be spiked without explanation, says Hajer Ajroudi, another young reporter at Le Temps.

“What happened was that we had covered all the interesting subjects that were permissible, so the productivity of journalists fell. Sometimes I’d only write two or three articles a month. I lost motivation, I didn’t want to cover the same stories again, and there was a shortage of new ones.”

Ajroudi had a brush with the authorities during the 2009 presidential election, when she was incorrectly blamed for the publication of a short article that mentioned a website run by Nicolas Beau, the French author of a critical book about the first lady.

The piece made no mention of the book, the president or his family, but the response was swift.

On Ben Ali’s orders, the secret service launched an investigation into the source of the story, and Ajroudi was suspended for three weeks. Her passport was held and she was questioned by police.

“They called my father at night and told him ‘we need to see your daughter, can you bring her in tomorrow’, ” she recalls. “They didn’t touch me. They didn’t assault me. But I saw it as intimidation.”

Ajroudi’s way of working has changed completely in the past week – one of her last pieces casts doubt on whether the government has been true to its promise to end internet censorship.

“I’ve decided not to shut up again,” she says. “We’re afraid that things will turn bad again, but I’ve said to myself that I’m going to keep . . . writing. You get used to freedom, even if you only have it for two or three days.”