PRESIDENT ZINE AL-ABIDINE BEN ALI CONTINUED TO DENY BASIC LIBERTIES, including press freedom, even as his government’s shameful human-rights record came under increased international scrutiny. For the third year in a row, CPJ named Ben Ali to its annual list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.”
Over the years, Ben Ali has stifled Tunisian media by prosecuting reporters, banning certain newspapers, and applying economic pressure against others. Critical journalists have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, put under police surveillance, and prevented from leaving the country. As a result, Tunisia has a moribund press in which nearly total self-censorship prevails. Fearing official reprisal, local media avoid substantive coverage of even the most benign topics.
In an apparent bid to confuse his critics, meanwhile, Ben Ali had the audacity to complain that the local press was too timid. “I have to say frankly that I virtually do not find anything to read anymore,” the president told local reporters. Ben Ali also urged Tunisian journalists to “write, analyze, criticize,” asking them, “What are you afraid of?”
After years of suffocation under the ominous weight of Ben Ali’s police state, indeed, some journalists displayed unprecedented defiance in 2000. In the year’s biggest press-freedom story, free-lance journalist Taoufik Ben Brik launched a 43-day hunger strike to protest the government’s relentless harassment of himself and his family. In particular, Ben Brik stopped eating to protest a travel ban imposed a year earlier, when Tunisian airport police confiscated his passport as he was about to embark on a trip to Switzerland.
In the end, the authorities issued Ben Brik a new passport. They also dismissed a court case stemming from articles about human-rights abuses in Tunisia that he had published in the European newspapers La Tribune de Genève and Le Courier. And particularly in Europe, Ben Brik’s hunger strike focused international media attention on Ben Ali’s repressive regime.
After the strike ended, Riad Ben Fadhel, who formerly edited the Arabic edition of the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, was seriously wounded in a May 23 drive-by shooting outside his home, near the Presidential Palace in Tunis. The attack came three days after Ben Fadhel published an opinion piece in the French daily Le Monde that attacked Ben Ali’s handling of the Ben Brik affair and urged the president to respect the Constitution by stepping down after completing his current term.
In their attempts to maintain airtight control over information, authorities continued to censor foreign publications that portrayed the country in an unfavorable light. The government blocks access to Web sites that criticize human-rights abuses in the country, including the Amnesty International site and CPJ’s own site (www.cpj.org).
During the year, Ben Ali repeated his old promise to reform Tunisia’s restrictive Press Code. In November, he announced a new bill that would abolish prison terms for press offenses and amend other provisions. At year’s end it was unclear whether an amended law would be approved and what changes it might include.
Taoufik Ben Brik, free-lancer
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
A state prosecutor in Tunis charged Ben Brik, a free-lance reporter for a number of European news organizations, with spreading false information and defaming public institutions in articles written for European newspapers.
The charges carried up to nine years in prison, along with unspecified fines. The prosecutor cited Ben Brik’s account of the harassment that he and local publisher Sihem Bensedrine were suffering at the hands of Tunisian police, published in January in the Swiss daily La Tribune de Genève, along with his review of an unflattering French book about autocratic Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali that appeared in February in the Swiss daily Le Courier.
After the charges were brought, Ben Brik launched a hunger strike to protest several years of harsh treatment by the Tunisian government, and specifically a travel ban imposed in 1999, when authorities confiscated his passport. On May 1, the government relented and issued Ben Brik a new passport. Two days later, the examining magistrate dismissed the April 3 charges and lifted a prior judicial order that prohibited Ben Brik from leaving the country.
On May 4, Ben Brik departed for Paris, where he continued his hunger strike on behalf of his jailed brother. He ended the strike in Paris on May 15, after 43 days.
CPJ and Human Rights Watch protested the extended harassment of Ben Brik in a joint April 4 letter to President Ben Ali.
Robert Menard, Reporters Sans Frontières
Virginie Locussol, Reporters Sans Frontières
Julia Ficatier, La Croix
Angelique Bouin, France Inter
Isabelle Simon, Sipa Press
Tunisian police assaulted French press freedom advocates and journalists when they tried to visit the Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who was in the 24th day of a hunger strike protesting two years of harassment by state authorities.
The group included Robert Menard, secretary general of the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), Virginie Locussol, RSF’s North Africa researcher, and three French journalists: Julia Ficatier of the daily La Croix, Angelique Bouin of the radio network France Inter, and Isabelle Simon of the photo agency Sipa Press.
“We were insulted, roughed up, and hit, and the journalists’ equipment, including camera and film, was seized or burned,” Menard told Agence France-Presse.
Riad Ben Fadhel, free-lancer
Ben Fadhel, a former editor of the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique’s Arabic edition, was shot by an unknown assailant outside his Carthage home.
An automobile with two men inside pulled up next to Ben Fadhel as he was getting into his own vehicle. According to Le Monde, one of the men shouted at Ben Fadhel, calling him a “traitor dog,” and then opened fire. Ben Fadhel was seriously wounded in the chest, but later recovered from his injuries.
Ben Fadhel was attacked three days after publishing an opinion piece in the daily Le Monde that criticized the Tunisian government’s handling of the Taoufik Ben Brik case and also urged President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to respect the country’s Constitution by stepping down at the end of his current term.
Ben Brik, a Tunisian free-lance journalist who has published numerous articles in European newspapers criticizing the government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, launched a 43-day hunger strike on April 3 to protest state harassment of himself and his family.
Initially, Tunisian state media claimed that Ben Fadhel had attempted suicide, an assertion that Ben Fadhel described as “a tissue of lies.”
In a May 26 news alert, CPJ condemned the attack and called on President Ben Ali to order an immediate, independent investigation into the matter.