251,287 cables indexed
Reference ID: 09TUNIS24
Subject: SCREWS TIGHTEN ON PRIVATE TUNISIAN TV STATION
Origin: Embassy Tunis, Tunisia Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Created:14 Jan 2009 Released:30 Aug 2011
Tags: ECPS, KPAO, PGOV, PHUM, PREF, PREL, TS

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C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 000024

SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/MAG (WILLIAMS, NARDI, PATTERSON); NEA/PPD
(DOUGLAS, AGNEW, JAZYNKA), DRL (JOHNSTONE, KLARMAN); LONDON
FOR RMH (SREEBNY); DUBAI FOR RMH (PELLETIER)

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/13/2019
TAGS: TS, KPAO, ECPS, PGOV, PREL, PHUM, PREF
SUBJECT: SCREWS TIGHTEN ON PRIVATE TUNISIAN TV STATION

REF: A. TUNIS 1199
B. TUNIS 795

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: At a December 17 dinner with the Ambassador
and again at at January 9 private meeting, the director
general of Tunisia's first and only private broadcast and
satellite TV station detailed ongoing government interference
and a surprise tax judgement against the station of almost US
$1.5 million. End summary.

2. (C) On December 17, the Ambassador, had dinner with
Hannibal TV Director General (and owner) Mohamed Larbi Nasra
(protect) and his son Mohamed Habib Nasra (protect), an
attorney also working with Hannibal TV. Soon after the
dinner at the restaurant began, three Tunisians, plainclothes
security by their appearance, were seated at an adjacent
table. Despite his evident discomfort, Nasra (the father)
described the latest developments in the continuing saga of
harassment of Hannibal TV by the Tunisian authorities
including Minister of Communications Rafaa Dekhil (reftels).

3. (C) In a telling example, Nasra had previously told the
Ambassador that he was not permitted to broadcast a program
documenting the Embassy's November 2008 U.S. Election Night
event. The Minister, furious at Nasra's "indiscretion,"
demanded a letter from Nasra stating that Hannibal TV had
decided not to broadcast the program of the station's own
accord, despite the fact that it was the Minister himself who
had banned the program. Under heavy pressure, Nasra agreed
to provide the letter, which went through many drafts until
the Minister himself simply provided the text he wanted Nasra
to use.

4. (C) Nasra and his son also claimed that the Tunisian
National Statistics Institute and, to a lesser extent,
private media survey firms were deliberately biased in their
reporting, failing to show how much more popular Hannibal TV
has become compared to state-run Tunis 7 TV. They provided a
copy of a survey commissioned by Hannibal TV that, they
claimed, gave a clearer picture. Anecdotal evidence seems to
support Hannibal TV claims of greater market share. Any
potential interference with audience penetration and market
share numbers has clear implications for the station's
advertising revenue.

5. (C) In a January 9 follow-up meeting with the Ambassador,
Nasra described further interference and detailed a new
problem--a tax judgment against the station of almost US $1.5
million. The station must reply within 30 days or face legal
action, including possible seizure of the station's assets.
According to Nasra, the tax levy and other actions, such as
the failure of the national health insurance to pay benefits
for some of his employees, are all aimed at driving him out
of the TV business so the members of Tunisia's "first family"
can take over the station. In another telling example, Nasra
describe an angry call from Dekhil following the broadcast of
a program on Gaza which included some frank debate and some
criticism of Hamas as well as condemnation of the Israelis.
Dekhil was furious that Nasra would allow such comments to go
out over the airwaves.

6. (C) Nasra, once close to Ben Ali but apparently out of
favor today, described the Tunisian President as "totally
passive" while First Lady Leila Ben Ali and the Ben Ali and
Trabelsi families, including rising political star Mohamed
Sakr El Matri, hold the real power behind the scenes. The
level of corruption means that inner circle expects all
others to act "like slaves" with grave consequences, from tax
audits to beatings to arrest and conviction on trumped-up
charges for those that step out of line.

7. (C) Comment: There is occasionally some progress toward
greater openness in the Tunisian media, such as a recent
editorial calling for faster movement on human rights and
interviews with genuine opposition figures such as PDP
Secretary General Maya Jribi. This progress is overshadowed,
however, by actions such as the continued GOT pressure on
Hannibal TV. Such heavy-handed interference with the private
TV station makes it clear that the GOT has no intention at
the moment of permitting full freedom of expression or
surrendering control of the local media, particularly the
broadcast media that matter most. End comment.
Godec