Ben Ali-style security arrests raise questions on government commitment to security reform

Security has been a major preoccupation of Tunisians since the fall of the previous regime. The fear is based not only on actual risks, including increases in small arms traffic, the release of several thousand prisoners, and general lawlessness – but also on increased crime reporting in the media. Information long surpressed under Ben Ali is now regularly in the news. What is considered banal crime beat reporting in the west (home break-ins, muggings, car theft) was literally unheard of in Ben Ali-era media.

In response to these rising fears, the government has been keen to show resolve and results in its crime fighting measures. Curiously, however, it has approached this in Ben Ali-style fashion – reporting mass arrests in huge crime sweeps in various neighborhoods and cities around the capital and other cities. Reports of several hundred criminals being rounded up are a regular appearance in the country’s print and online media. A recent headline from the state news agency reports: 423 delinquents arrested in Tunis: 423 delinquents, some wanted on charges of murder, theft, violent attacks, possession and trafficking of drugs, and illegal distribution of alcohol here arrested in Tunis between April 12-29.” More reports can be read here, here, here, and here.

Even in reports without the dramatic numbers of arrests, one finds precious little information on the police work involved or the ongoing investigation. A search on the Tunisian news agency found no results for actual convictions or guilty verdicts by Tunisia’s courts against these criminals.

This is curious. The current government, desperate both to show that it can manage the security situation and reform the security apparatus itself – is using the same tactics as Ben Ali to prove its competence. Government reports on jobs and investment projects often follow the same model – reporting huge numbers, with no analysis of concrete results, or follow up that things have actually changed. It reminds me of the headlines in the run up to the January 14, 2011 toppling of Ben Ali – week one the government promised to create 10,000 jobs, week two 50,000, and by week three they were promising 300,000 jobs.

Of course, government press releases are not the only problem. The fact that these are reprinted without any changes in the country’s newspapers shows the inadequecy of reporting that still plagues the Tunisian media. But  the media isn’t running for reelection next year – the government is – and it is the government’s responsibility to show that it is prosecuting real criminals and getting real convictions – and thus making the country safer. Instead, we get something that falls far short.

One of the foremost complaints about the Ben Ali regime was the arbitrary arrest of just about anyone for anything (see Bouazizi, for one). Reporting mass arrests, without correllary stories on the police investigation, the prosecution, or honest crime statistics makes a mockery of the reports themselves and raises questions about what the government is actually doing.

Magnifying the problem is the seeming inability or unwillingness of the government to tackle the security challenges brought on by radical conservative groups, who have recently stepped up attacks on both tourists and establishments deemed un-Islamic.

So we have a situation in which the government seems content to continue the arbitrary arrest of delinquents, yet is unwilling to investigate and hold accountable groups that are a real and open threat – including to the just recovering tourism industry.

The irony in all of this is that the government has made security sector reforms one of its top priorities of 2012. It has released an action plan and a statement of values the security system should uphold, including raising confidence in the system and instituting community policing measures. Its efforts so far, at least by way of official spokemen, have fallen far short of this goal.

[Photo: Image of police at the interior ministry from Nawaat]

3 thoughts on “Ben Ali-style security arrests raise questions on government commitment to security reform

  1. I think the issue of media complicity in this issue is a big part of the problem here. In a diverse and thriving media environment, such empty law & order rhetoric would be torn apart as you have done here, but in ways accessible to the majority of Tunisians. Are you aware of the hunger strike recently launched by journalists against favouritism and corruption in the media ( – has there been any progress here that you know of?

    • I wasn’t aware of the hunger strike against favoritism in state advertising in newspapers (Thanks for the link). Personally, I see that as somewhat a different issue. The increase in independent newspapers has been remarkable in post-Ben Ali Tunisia. The problem is that it has corresponded in too few cases into actual better reporting or analysis. Publications that are clearly critical of the government simply do not analyze government press releases or statements. On the larger issue, I agree with you completely – the media is absolutely complicit in this – even when media outlets disagree with the government’s line, they do not follow up with critical analysis of that line.

      • I think the two issues are quite strongly connected – if there is an unfree environment for the telling of truths, journalists are likely self-censor or hold back their attacks on the government line. The issue of funding is another carrot/stick which shapes and influences the way the media functions; in environments of strong corporate control and monopolisation, stories critical of government are only told when they sell, and the more government influence there is the more people will tiptoe around such topics. What’s needed is a press that’s not just free as in able to be set up but free as in able to take on the real issues and speak truth to power. Diversity is a good base for this but, as you pointed out, isn’t enough, especially if independant funding is less available.

        Lina’s also written some more on the campaign for free press:

        Thanks again for all the good content and discussion!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s