Row as Tunisia journalist union picks pro-govt boss
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's Journalists' Union has elected a member of the ruling party as its new leader, prompting opposition claims its independence was being compromised two months before a presidential election.
The union has been an independent voice in the North African country of 10 million people where critics say the government exercises tight control over politics and the media.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, 72, who has been in power for more than two decades, is seeking re-election in October.
"What is happening today is a tragic chapter in the history of the country," said Neji Bghouri, the former president of the union who was forced to step down along with the rest of the union's executive after four board members resigned last month.
"The government is afraid of free journalists and for this reason it prepared a putsch ... The authorities no longer accept any dissenting voices," he told a news conference late on Saturday.
At a specially-convened congress on Saturday, the union elected a new executive and president. The new president denied there had been any government involvement.
"Journalists have the right to have a political colour ... but the government does not vote, journalists are voting," Jamel Karmaoui told Reuters. Karmaoui is a member of Ben Ali's RCD party, which controls the Tunisian parliament.
He said his priority was to ensure "the return of union prestige and improve the quality of journalism to strengthen press freedom in the country."
Supporters of the Tunisian president say he has ensured social stability and strong economic growth. Tunisia is North Africa's most modern state and is closely allied with U.S. efforts to pursue violent Islamist militants.
On a visit to Tunisia last year, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the country had made progress on advancing democracy, but said she hoped media freedoms would be improved in the run-up to the presidential election.
The conflict within the journalists' union broke out in May when the executive board issued a report, to mark World Press Freedom Day, which was critical of the level of freedom of expression in Tunisia.
Three opposition parties voiced support for the outgoing leadership of the union and said they had been ousted in a coup.
The four members of the executive who resigned, forcing the election of a new board, had accused Bghouri of running the union by diktat and artificially creating conflict with the authorities.
The authorities have distanced themselves from the affair, saying it is an internal matter for the union's members.