As the honorary co-chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and a journalist who was kidnapped and detained for nearly seven years, I wish to express my profound concern about the ongoing imprisonment of our colleague Zouhair Yahyaoui, a 35-year-old Tunisian Internet journalist who was unjustly jailed last summer.
Yahyaoui is one of two journalists currently imprisoned in Tunisia. The other, Hamadi Jebali, the editor of Al-Fajr, the weekly newspaper of the banned Islamist Al-Nahda party, has been incarcerated since January 1991, and CPJ has long lobbied for his release. Jebali was arrested because of an article published in Al-Fajr calling for the abolition of military courts in Tunisia and sentenced to 16 years in prison for “aggression with the intention of changing the nature of the state” and “membership in an illegal organization.”
Yahyaoui was arrested on June 4, 2002, and charged with intentionally publishing false information—a violation of Article 306 of Tunisia’s Penal Code—and of using stolen communication lines to post his Web site—a violation of Section 84 of the country’s Telecommunications Code. In July, an appeals court confirmed the verdict but reduced the sentence from 28 months in prison to 24 months.
The case against Yahyaoui stemmed from statements on a chat forum and articles he had posted on his Web publication, TUNeZINE, that criticized the Tunisian government, including the May 2002 referendum in which 99.52 percent of voters approved constitutional changes allowing Your Excellency to run for a fourth term as president. TUNeZINE also carried outspoken articles by independent journalists and human rights activists, as well as other critical voices in Tunisia. His imprisonment clearly illustrates the Tunisian government’s disregard for critical media coverage.
In the eight months since his imprisonment, Yahyaoui’s health, as well the conditions in which he is being held, have deteriorated. CPJ sources familiar with the case have said that Yahyaoui is being held in a cell that he shares with dozens of other prisoners. Because of the cramped conditions, he has suffered skin diseases and other medical complications. According to these sources, police physically abused Yahyaoui during his initial interrogation. To protest his situation, the journalist went on a two-week hunger strike last month.
The jailing of Zouhair Yahyaoui and Hamadi Jebali is both an outrage and an affront to basic, internationally accepted standards of human rights and freedom of expression. I urge Your Excellency to do everything within your power to see that this injustice is reversed and that Zouhair Yahyaoui and Hamadi Jebali are released from prison immediately.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. I look forward to your reply.