Speaking from the White House on Wednesday, Bush told his ally in the "War on Terror" that the North African state needed to have a "vibrant and free" media and an "open political process".

Despite Bin Ali's claim that Tunisia shares US principles on human rights and democracy, the White House was politely criticising Tunisia's restrictive government and controlled media.

Deplorable record

Ahead of the meeting, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had urged Bush to raise what it called "Tunisia's deplorable press freedom record."
  
CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper pleaded with the president to "express deep reservations both in public and in private about the poor state of press freedom in Tunisia".
  
"Make it clear that, as a close ally of the United States, Tunisia will be held accountable when it violates the fundamental right to freedom of expression." 

Dissatisfaction at home

Tunisian reform leader Rashid Ghannuchi continually highlights harassment and repression of government critics in the North African state.

Head of the main opposition Nahdha Party, Ghannuchi claims Tunisia's justice system "has turned into an instrument of repression".

Tunisia is "a country whose prisons overflow with prisoners of conscience who have been made victims of a systematic slow death policy for a decade and a half." 

"Make it clear that, as a close ally of the United States, Tunisia will be held accountable when it violates the fundamental right to freedom of expression." 

Ann Cooper,
CPJ Executive Director

Ghannuchi told Aljazeera.net that dozens of government critics have "either died or were disabled for life, while their families have been made homeless."
  
Suggested reforms

In a statement read by Bush's spokesman after the two presidents met, Scott McClellan said Bin Ali had to make progress in areas such as the right "to organize and work peacefully for reform" and equal justice under the law for all citizens.

"Progress in these areas is very much in Tunisia's interest and in the interest of even stronger relations with the United States in the years ahead."
  
After meeting with Bin Ali for almost an hour on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell also urged greater political reform. 
   
Powell said he had "some continuing concerns with respect to political reforms … in a spirit of friendship I laid out those items to him."
  
"Tunisia is a good friend, a strong friend. With strong friends, you can discuss issues that are in contention."
  
Peace process role

The meeting came as Tunis prepared to host a meeting of Arab leaders on 29 March aimed at seeking ways of promoting a just peace in the Middle East.
  
Bush said Tunisia could help lead the region to reform and freedom - "something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term".
  
Tunis has frequently called for the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and has recently shown signs of wanting to normalise relations with Israel - relations frozen for four years.