(New York Times)
Tunisia’s interim government abruptly shut down the country’s oldest and most popular private television network Sunday evening, in an apparent violation of its pledges to respect freedom of expression after the ouster of the authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The state news agency said the government had arrested the network’s owner and shut down its broadcast for “grand treason,” charging that the network was attempting “to abort the youth’s revolution, spread confusion, incite strife and broadcast false information likely to create a constitutional vacuum and destabilize the country in order to take it into a spiral of violence that aims to restore the dictatorship of the former president,” according to a government statement.
But Lotfi Sallemi, a spokesman for the network, said the government shut down its signal without warning or explanation.
“The owner was with the revolution, giving voice to all the people,” he said, speaking to a small gaggle of reporters in a dimly light doorway outside the darkened studio. Mr. Sallemi called the shutdown a flagrant violation of freedom of the press, arguing that any charges against the owner could be adjudicated without suddenly shutting down a major network.
Reacting to the news Sunday night, several Tunisians said the shut down seriously damaged the credibility of the interim government, which is facing mounting protests against its continued dominance by former members of the old ruling party, including a prime minister who was Mr. Ben Ali’s right-hand man. The fate of the network, Hannibal TV, is widely seen here as a crucial test of the new government’s commitment to civil liberties.
A week after the protests began, convoys of Tunisians from the impoverished south of the country arrived in the capital Sunday to join hundreds of other in the old-city square outside, where the crowd jeered and chanted for break-up of the government for more than eight hours. “Today, Today, the government should go,” they chanted.
The state news agency said that the owner of Hannibal TV was a relative of the former president’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a widely reviled figure here whose family grew conspicuously rich after her marriage.
But the Hannibal network, founded about five years ago, was better known for conflict than coziness with the former government, losing certain soccer broadcast rights to state television or the right to broadcast a talk-show too similar to one on state television. And since Mr. Ben Ali’s ouster, its news and political program has hardly celebrated the former president but rather echoed the widespread calls for the eradication of the old ruling party from the interim government.
Defenders of the new government have argued that decades of one-party rule have left few outsiders qualified, on a moment’s notice, to steer the state to free elections six months from now.
The shut down occurred as the network was preparing to air an interview with Hamma Hammami, a leader of the banned Communist party here. Among the boldest critics of Mr. Ben Ali before his flight, Mr. Hammami has since become been a vocal critic of the old ruling party’s role in the interim government, including in a statement broadcast on Hannibal TV Saturday night. He also has close ties to the Tunisian trade union, which is backing the protests against the new government.
The interim government, meanwhile, took other steps to repudiate the ousted president. The state news agency reported that two officials close to Mr. Ben Ali were put under house arrest: Abdelaziz bin Dhia, Ben Ali’s spokesman and chief adviser, and Abdallah Qallal, the speaker of parliament’s upper house.