June 19, 2002
His Excellency Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
President of the Republic of Tunisia
Presidential Palace Carthage, Tunisia
Via facsimile: : 011 (216) 71 744-721
The Committee to Protect to Journalists (CPJ) is writing to protest the arrest and prosecution of Zouhair Yahyaoui, an Internet café employee and editor of the online publication Tunezine.
On the evening of June 4, plainclothes state agents detained Yahyaoui at an Internet café in the capital, Tunis. Authorities then searched Yahyaoui’s home and confiscated disks and other computer materials.
After spending several days in detention, Yahyaoui was charged in court on June 13 with intentionally publishing false information–a violation of Article 306 of the Penal Code.
The charge, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, comes in response to a number of articles posted on Tunezine, including a recent piece that criticized the May 26 constitutional referendum in which 99.52 percent of voters approved constitutional changes to allow Your Excellency to run for a fourth term as president.
Yahyaoui was also charged with using stolen communication lines to post his Web site, a violation of section 84 of the Telecommunications Code. This crime carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Yahyaoui’s lawyer believes that this additional charge is a direct attempt to add to his client’s potential prison sentence and to silence the Web site.
Since Yahyaoui established Tunezine in July 2001 using a pseudonym, the Web site has frequently run articles and commentary–including the views of leading Tunisian dissidents–that are highly critical of the Tunisian government.
Tunisian authorities have blocked the Web site to users inside Tunisia, but Tunezine has often circumvented these barriers by establishing alternate addresses.
Yahyaoui’s case is adjourned until tomorrow, June 20.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ views the arrest and criminal prosecution of journalists for publishing unflattering news about the government as a clear violation of the internationally recognized right to free expression.
We respectfully urge Your Excellency to do everything within your power to ensure that Yahyaoui is freed immediately and that the charges against him are dropped. We further ask that you use your position as president of Tunisia to provide guarantees that enable Yahyaoui and other Tunisian journalists to practice their professional work freely without official interference.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We look forward to your reply.