date: 2/16/2010 14:09
origin: Embassy Tunis
DE RUEHTU #0113/01 0471409
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 161409Z FEB 10
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7291
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE
RUEWMFD/USAFRICOM STUTTGART GE
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC
C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 000113
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/28/2020
TAGS: PREL, PGOV, PHUM, KTIP, TS
SUBJECT: SENIOR GOT OFFICIAL CALLS FOR "NEW PAGE" IN
REF: TUNIS 66
Classified by Ambassador Gordon Gray for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Summary: Saida Chtoui, one of two de facto deputy ministers in Tunisia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told visiting DAS Sanderson on January 26 that the U.S. and Tunisia "have a lot of work to do together," that Tunisia's new Foreign Minister is "open minded," and that Tunisia wants to "build stronger political relations" with the U.S. Chtoui maintained that Tunisia was striving to find the right balance among security, development, and democratic process, and insisted Tunisia deserved more credit for its social achievements. Responding to DAS Sanderson's expression of concern about human rights and a recent crackdown against independent journalism, Chtoui dismissed dissident journalists as poseurs and profiteers and complained, relatively mildly, about Tunisia's mention in the Secretary's January 21 speech on Internet freedom. This prompted a spirited exchange on freedom of expression, in which Chtoui linked moves in the U.S. to ban Al-Manar TV to Tunisia's censorship of "dangerous" websites. The Ambassador openly wondered what threat was posed by sites such as Freedom House. At the close of what remained throughout a friendly discussion, Chtoui pledged Tunisia's full support for U.S. efforts to revive Middle East peace talks (reftel). End summary.
2. (C) DAS Sanderson met for one hour on January 26 with Saida Chtoui, the veteran Tunisian diplomat now serving as Secretary of State for Asia and the Americas (Deputy Minister equivalent) at the conclusion of her January 25-27 visit to Tunis. Chtoui rolled out a rhetorical red carpet for her guest, opening the meeting with the declaration that Tunisia seeks "stronger political ties" and would like to "open a new page" with the U.S. Indicating Tunisia would welcome more high level USG visits, Chtoui asked about "her friend" Assistant Secretary Feltman, and noted that President Ben Ali holds Under Secretary Burns in very high regard and "really enjoys talking with him.... Our new Foreign Minister is very open minded," Chtoui continued, "...there is much work we can do together. We feel positive change with the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador. Things are changing and moving forward."
Sanderson: Need for Candid, Substantive Dialogue
3. (C) Welcoming the positive tone of Chtoui's opening remarks, DAS Sanderson observed that, as longtime friends, the U.S. and Tunisia should not hesitate to speak frankly about differences of opinion, which are normal in any relationship. "There are no taboos," Chtoui replied; we are ready to work together. DAS Sanderson said the U.S. was concerned about human rights in Tunisia, and particularly recent actions against independent journalists that raised doubts about the freedom of the press. We would also like to discuss the issue of trafficking in persons, and we are hoping the GOT will follow though on its committment to arrange a meeting for the Embassy with the designated point of contact in the Ministry of Justice, DAS Sanderson added.
4. (C) Reprising a familiar theme, Chtoui said the GOT had two years ago made a great effort to provide the U.S. with a comprehensive dossier of information about the Tunisia's legal framework and protections concerning TIP, but that none of this was factored into the final report. This ommission was demoralizing to the GOT, Chtoui asserted. (Note: In fact, much of the GOT's information on laws that could be used to prosecute human traffickers was incorporated into the Embassy's submission to the Department on TIP. End note.) The GOT was nonetheless willing to take up the subject again with the USG, "provided there is a prospect for change," Chtoui allowed.
5. (C) The USG places a high premium on the accuracy of its reports, DAS Sanderson underlined, and it is for this reason we would like to have candid, substantive dialogue with the GOT - on TIP, and on broader human rights topics. This is an opportunity for the GOT to clarify its views and actions, DAS Sanderson added.
Dissidents as Poseurs
6. (C) "We know we are not perfect," Chtoui responded, but the U.S. should not take all the anti-GOT criticism it hears at face value. She questioned the credentials of Taoufik Ben Brik (a journalist jailed in November) and activist Sihem Bensidrine (a high profile dissident perennially clashing with the GOT), claiming they were much better at posing for international sympathizers than in actually practicing their trades. However well-known and popular they may be abroad, in Tunisia "no one is above the law," Chtoui insisted.
7. (C) The small minority of GOT critics who get so much international attention do not represent the views of most Tunisians, who benefit from living in a country where 80 percent of the citizens are middle class, Chtoui claimed.
Tunisians enjoy a better standard of living than either Algerians or Libyans, even though each country is considerably richer in resources. Tunisia is taking extraordinary steps to generate jobs for its university graduates, even sharing payroll costs with employers in some cases. Poverty rates in Tunisia are more comparable to countries in Europe than to countries in Africa, Chtoui insisted.
8. (C) We expect candid discussions with the USG, but demonizing Tunisia is not fair, Chtoui emphasized. There may be room for improvement, but the subject of human rights in Tunisia "is not a disaster." Mentioning Tunisia as one of the worst countries in the world for Internet freedom does not seem fair, Chtoui continued. Tunisia was one of the first countries in either Africa or the Arab world to encourage the growth of Internet use. "Where does the truth really lie?" Chtoui asked rhetorically. Tunisia is situated in the middle of a dangerous region, Chtoui declared, and had a duty to take security precautions. Tunisia is struggling to find the right balance between security, economic development, and democratic freedoms, she asserted.
9. (C) "Finding the right balance is an ongoing, difficult process," DAS Sanderson allowed. "As leaders and citizens, we need to weigh how much we are giving up," as we make security decisions, she added. The U.S. learned, following September 11, that too many controls can be counterproductive, DAS Sanderson observed. If the GOT feels the Secretary's remarks about the Internet were not accurate, we should talk about it, DAS Sanderson underlined, "our concern is that Tunisia's admirable progress in some areas could be undermined by its lack of progress in other areas."
10. (C) Chtoui rejected the notion that freedom of expression does not exist in Tunisia. Several licensed Arabic language newspapers, such as those belonging to the former communist party (Al-Tajdid), receive GOT subsidies, even as they regularly level criticism at the government. At the same time, "we fully understand," Chtoui asserted, U.S. moves to ban the broadcasts of Hezbollah-controlled Al-Manar TV, which it considers incitement. For the same reason, Tunisia needs to take action to block sites that incite hatred and threaten stability, she maintained. "Even in the U.S., freedom of speech is not absolute," the Ambassador interjected, "you can't yell 'fire' in the middle of a crowded movie house.
But it is difficult to see what particular security threat is posed to Tunisia by Freedom House's website. There should be a place for mainstream criticism," the Ambassador underscored.
11. (C) "Freedom House does not have a balanced attitude.
They are very biased and only listen to Tunisia's critics.
They don't listen to those who point out our achievements," Chtoui replied. "I hate Al-Jazeera (whose site is also blocked in Tunisia). They just destroy people day and night in a hateful dialogue, if we can call it dialogue." The Ambassador said the USG distinguishes between Al-Jazeera, which is often biased, and Al-Manar, which is the arm of a terrorist group. There is a difference between journalistic bias and incitement to violence, the Ambassador stressed.
12. (C) Wrapping up the conversation, DAS Sanderson and the Ambassdor emphasized that the U.S. would like to engage in a sustained, practical, non-adversarial dialogue with Tunisia, and would like to move forward various items on the bilateral agenda, including a resumption of TIFA talks and the conclusion of an open skies agreement. Chtoui said the GOT welcomed these efforts, adding "you can rely on my personal support."
13. (U) This message was cleared by DAS Sanderson.