Tunisia must end censorship on coverage of unrest

January 5, 2011 

His Excellency Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 
President of the Republic of Tunisia 
Presidential Palace 
Carthage, Tunisia 

Via Facsimile: +216-71-744-721 

Dear President Ben Ali,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is disturbed by your government's attempt to censor coverage of recent protests against unemployment and corruption in Tunisia. We are specifically alarmed by the confiscation of two opposition weeklies, the government's denunciation of Al-Jazeera, the systematic obstruction of reporting and broadcasting, as well as the blocking of news websites that are covering the protests. We call on your government to bring to an immediate end its efforts to curtail independent reporting and to reverse course on the restrictions in place since mid-December.

In a December 28 televised speech addressed to Tunisians, you pledged your government's "respect [of] freedom of opinion and expression" and your government's determination "to ensure its consolidation in legislation and practice." You added that the government "respects any position if it was within the framework of compliance with the law, the rules, and the ethics of dialogue." But the reality is in contrast to your words. In the speech, you blamed "some foreign television channels which broadcast false and unchecked allegations," without citing a single example.

In late December, authorities confiscated Al-Mawkif, an opposition weekly belonging to the Progressive Democratic Party in Tunisia. Security agents confiscated copies of the newspaper's December 24 edition from newsstands, according to a statement released by the paper. Authorities also confiscated the December 25 issue of Al-Tariq al-Jadid, owned by the Ettajdid Movement, an opposition political party. Both issues of Al-Mawkif and Al-Tariq al-Jadid contained extensive coverage of the events that unfolded in Sidi Bouzid region, where the wave of unrest began. The protests were sparked two weeks ago, after an unemployed university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after police dismantled his illegal fruit-vending stand. Protests against unemployment spread across the country, reaching the capital, in what has been widely described as the country's greatest unrest in a decade.

We are also alarmed by the shrill government-orchestrated campaign against Al-Jazeera. On December 27, parliament issued a statement condemning Al-Jazeera's "biased media campaign" in an apparent reference to the station's coverage of the civil unrest. Parliament accused the station of attempting to "discredit Tunisia's reputation" and creating a "spirit of hatred and resentment" in order "to spread chaos, instability, and distrust in the country's achievements." We call on your government to present its views on the air, as it has been invited to do by media outlets on countless occasions, instead of attacking news organizations for simply performing their duties.

The obstacles put in place for virtually all nonstate-aligned media are a source of concern. On December 30, Sofiene Chourabi, a reporter with Al-Tariq al-Jadid, was followed by plainclothes police while he was trying to cover street protests. Security agents stopped Chourabi and confiscated his equipment and ID, the journalist told CPJ, adding that his blog was hacked and disabled. There were also instances of mistreatment of journalists while in detention, like the case of Mouldi Zouabi, a correspondent for Radio Kalima who was arrested on December 29 while he was covering protests in front a court in Jendouba. He managed to call his radio station and to say that he was beaten before his phone was taken from him, Radio Kalima reported.  On December 26, Hannibal TV, a privately owned pro-government television station was prevented from airing a program about the protests in Sidi Bouzid, Neji Bghouri, the former head of the Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists told Al-Jazeera. Nessma Channel, also a pro-government private broadcaster, was blocked from re-broadcasting a previously aired program about the street protests, according to Bghouri.

We are troubled to learn that your government's practice of blocking websites--including CPJ Web pages on Tunisia--has recently intensified. Local journalists told CPJ that additional news websites, as well as numerous Facebook pages carrying critical content, blogs, and journalists' e-mail accounts have been blocked by the state-run Tunisian Internet Agency since protests erupted on December 17. Regional and international media have reported that numerous local and international news websites covering the street protests were blocked in Tunisia. One report placed your country, along with Saudi Arabia, as the worst in the region regarding Internet censorship. A 2009 CPJ study found Tunisia to be one of the 10 worst countries worldwide to be a blogger, in part for the same reasons.   

We are also alarmed by radical new steps in online censorship and infiltration undertaken by your government. CPJ research shows that the Tunisian Internet Agency is harvesting passwords and usernames of bloggers, reporters, political activists, and protesters by injecting hidden JavaScript that captures usernames and passwords. Our examination of the computer code in question indicates that the Tunisian Internet Agency is directly interfering with Web traffic and inserting malicious code into pages accessed by users inside Tunisia. Local bloggers have told CPJ that their accounts and pictures of recent protests have been deleted or otherwise compromised. 

We call on you to instruct the relevant authorities to end these restrictions on independent journalism and to honor your assurances that freedom of the press will be protected. Such strong-armed tactics cause immeasurable harm to Tunisia's international reputation. We ask you to ensure that your country moves forward from here with respect for the press.

Thank for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

January 5, 2011 12:27 PM ET |

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