Dear President Bush:
In advance of your meeting with Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, scheduled for Tuesday, February 17, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to draw your attention to Tunisia’s dismal press freedom record.
Since President Ben Ali seized power in 1987, he has helped transform Tunisia’s press into one of the most restricted anywhere in the Arab world. During Ben Ali’s autocratic rule, the government has responded swiftly and severely to journalists who have not towed the official line. Over the years, the government has banned newspapers and jailed dissenting reporters. Critical journalists have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, put under police surveillance, assaulted, and prevented from leaving the country. Two journalists are currently in prison for their work: Hamadi Jebali and Abdullah Zouari, both former editors of Al-Fajr, the weekly newspaper of the banned Islamist Al-Nahda party. The few courageous voices remaining in the country succeed in circumventing government control by publishing on the Internet, but Tunisian authorities do not hesitate to block their Web sites, harass them, and even imprison them.
Despite the November 2003 release of jailed cyberjournalist Zouhair Yahyaoui, who spent almost a-year-and-half in prison for posting articles on his Web site criticizing the Tunisian government, authorities continue to repress Tunisians who have attempted to express themselves freely in the media. On the same day Yahyaoui was released, for example, Internet journalist Naziha Rejiba, who edits the online Tunisian publication Kalima, received an eight-month suspended prison sentence on spurious charges of violating currency exchange laws. CPJ research suggests that Rejiba was targeted because of her critical writings about the government’s human rights record, as well as a television appearance on a satellite channel during which she criticized President Ben Ali.
More recently, on January 5, an assailant believed to be working with the state security services violently attacked prominent Internet journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, also of the online magazine Kalima, when she exited her home in the capital, Tunis. Kalima, which is banned by Web censors inside Tunisia, was also recently refused approval to print hard copies.
In light of this troubling situation, we hope that you will use your visit with President Ben Ali to express deep reservations–both in public and in private–about the poor state of press freedom in Tunisia. We encourage you to urge Ben Ali to do everything within his power to ensure that journalists are able to work freely, without the threat of intimidation and harassment. Your administration should make it clear that, as a close ally of the United States, Tunisia will be held accountable when it violates the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Doing so will not only provide support for a free press–an essential component of democracy–but it will also emphasize the administration’s recently stated goal of promoting democracy in the region. We believe that a policy of engagement with the Tunisian government on these issues, along with vocal support for persecuted media outlets, would be welcomed by supporters of democracy in Tunisia and in the region as a sign of the U.S. government’s support for these goals.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters.
Ann K. Cooper