Government harasses independent journalists group

New York, August 25, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed deep concern today about Tunisian authorities’ continuing harassment of the recently formed Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT) and the government’s apparent plan to prevent the group’s members from gathering in Tunis next month.

Security officials in the capital, Tunis, interrogated SJT head Lotfi Hajji for five hours on Wednesday, the journalist told CPJ. A security official told Hajji that the government had decided to bar the SJT from holding its first congress, which was scheduled for September 7 in Tunis. The congress was supposed to elect the group’s first board of directors.

The official also told Hajji that the group could not hold a seminar, planned for the same week, which would have brought together journalists from throughout North Africa.

The SJT was founded in May 2004 by independent Tunisian journalists frustrated by the country’s poor press freedom record and the failure of the country’s existing press associations to speak out against harassment of the media.

Security authorities have summoned Hajji for questioning twice before. The interrogations took place in May after the release of an SJT report about attacks on the press in Tunisia. Hajji said he was warned that the Tunisian authorities do not recognize the SJT.

“By using such heavy-handed tactics, Tunisia flouts the most basic rights to freedom of the press and association that it so publicly purports to embrace,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

The harassment comes as the Tunisian government is preparing to host the World Summit for the Information Society, a United Nation-sponsored gathering seeking to establish international regulations for the Internet. Thousands of government, business, media, and human rights leaders are due to attend the November summit.

“With one hand, Tunisian authorities are welcoming international leaders to talk about free expression on the Internet, while with the other hand, it is slapping down people in its own country seeking to express their viewpoints,” Cooper said. “The international community can’t help but take notice, and can’t help but be alarmed.”