CPJ and Human Rights Watch Protest Ongoing Harassment of Tunisian Journalist

New York, April 5, 2000–In a joint letter sent today to Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly protested the Tunisian authorities’ continued harassment of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who is being persecuted solely for exercising his internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression.

On Monday, a state prosecutor in Tunis summoned Ben Brik to hear charges of publishing false information and offending public institutions. The accusations stem from articles about human-rights abuses in Tunisia that Ben Brik wrote for the European newspapers La Tribune de Genève and Le Courier. If convicted, Ben Brik reportedly faces up to nine years in prison in addition to unspecified fines.

Ben Brik, who is a founder of a local human rights monitoring group, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), began a hunger strike on Monday to protest his treatment at the hands of authorities. He remains prohibited from traveling outside of Tunisia since authorities confiscated his passport last year.

“This action is further testimony to the Tunisian government’s utter contempt for critical and independent journalism,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper. “Taoufik Ben Brik is a dedicated and professional journalist who is being targeted simply for doing his job. This harassment must stop.”

CPJ and Human Rights Watch have previously protested the Tunisian authorities’ harassment of Ben Brik and unwarranted restrictions on his freedom of expression. Over the last two years, Ben Brik has been the target of numerous reprisals from Tunisian authorities for his coverage of human rights. He has been detained by police and physically assaulted by presumed state agents. His telephone service has been regularly interrupted, and he has frequently come under police surveillance.

Last month Human Rights Watch awarded Ben Brik the organization’s Hellman/Hammett award, given annually to writers around the world who have been the target of political persecution.

A copy of the letter to President Ben Ali is attached.

April 5, 2000

His Excellency Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
President of the Republic of Tunisia
c/o His Excellency Noureddine Mejdoub
1515 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) are writing to protest the Tunisian government’s continuing harassment of Taoufik Ben Brik, a free-lance reporter who writes for a number of European news organizations. He is also a founding member of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), a human rights monitoring group that has been critical of state human rights abuses and whose application for legal status has been rejected by authorities.

On Monday, April 3, Ben Brik was summoned before a state prosecutor in Tunis to answer charges of spreading false information and defaming public institutions in connection with articles he wrote for European newspapers in recent months about the human rights situation in Tunisia. The first article, published in January in the Swiss daily La Tribune de Genève discussed the police harassment of Tunisian journalist and publisher Sihem Bensedrine. The second piece was a review of the book Our Friend Ben Ali, by French journalists Jean-Pierre Tuquoi and Nicolas Beau, which initially appeared in a February issue of the Swiss daily Le Courier. The book, published last year, includes highly critical accounts of human-rights abuses in Tunisia.

Ben Brik’s case is presently adjourned until April 10. If convicted, he reportedly faces up to nine years in prison in addition to unspecified fines. We understand that Ben Brik began a hunger strike on Monday to protest his treatment at the hands of Tunisian authorities, including the ongoing ban on his travel outside the country since authorities confiscated his passport last year.

Monday’s legal action is only the most recent example of state harassment against Ben Brik in reprisal for his coverage of human rights issues and other sensitive domestic issues. CPJ and HRW have written to Tunisian authorities on numerous occasions during the past two years expressing concern about police intimidation and other violations of Ben Brik’s civil rights. Examples include:

  • Ben Brik’s telephone lines have been frequently interrupted and he has been the target of rigorous police surveillance near his home.
  • On January 28 1999, a group of five men, presumed to be state agents, drove up in a Peugeot 405 automobile and vandalized a car belonging to Ben Brik’s wife, Azza. They smashed the car’s windows and windshield, and stole a baby seat. Later that evening, Ben Brik received an anonymous threatening phone call. The two incidents followed the publication, earlier that month, of an article by Ben Brik in the Swiss daily La Tribune de Genève, discussing the recent release of seven students who had been arrested after protesting Ministry of Higher Education policies.
  • Last April, Tunisian airport police confiscated Ben Brik’s passport, preventing him from leaving the country for a planned trip to Switzerland. Last month, Ben Brik wrote to Interior Minister Abdullah Qalal requesting that the passport be returned. To our knowledge, authorities have so far failed to respond to this request.
  • On May 21, 1999, Ben Brik was assaulted outside his home by three unidentified men wielding bicycle chains. The journalist suffered injuries to his right arm before escaping his attackers. The attack is believed to have come in retaliation for an article he wrote for the May 10, 1999, edition of Le Temps, a Swiss publication, in which he discussed the case of Khemais Ksila, a vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, who was imprisoned for speaking out about human-rights abuses in Tunisia. Three days after the attack, Ben Brik was arrested without warrant in Tunis and held for about three hours.

CPJ and HRW view these acts of harassment and intimidation as flagrant violations of the right to free expression as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a state party. The ICCPR requires that states guarantee journalists the right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.”

We respectfully urge Your Excellency to ensure that Tunisian authorities immediately cease their harassment of Taoufik Ben Brik and allow him to carry out his professional duties without state interference, in accordance with international press freedom standards and his internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. Specifically, we call on you to examine all possible legal options to ensure that judicial proceedings initiated against Ben Brik are dropped. We also urge you to use your good offices to ensure that Ben Brik’s passport is returned so that he may travel freely.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.