As international leaders prepare to gather in Tunis for a summit on the Internet, the Committee to Protect Journalists strongly protests the imprisonment of journalists Hamadi Jebali and Mohamed Abbou, who have been jailed solely for expressing their views.
Jebali, former editor of Al-Fajr, the now-defunct weekly newspaper of the banned Islamic Al-Nahda party, has spent almost 15 years in prison in Tunisia. He was first jailed in 1991 for publishing an article calling for the abolition of military tribunals in Tunisia. Tried the following year by a military court, along with 279 others accused of belonging to Al-Nahda, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. International human rights groups monitoring the mass trial concluded that the proceedings fell far below international standards of justice. Jebali is in prison solely as a result of his journalistic work and his newspaper’s affiliation with Al-Nahda. He has committed no recognizable offense under international standards of justice.
In April, Jebali went on a hunger strike until the government ended the solitary confinement imposed on him and other political prisoners for more than a decade. On September 15, he started a second hunger strike to protest his ongoing imprisonment. He ended it on October 21 after authorities promised to look into his case. He recently resumed his fast, however, citing the lack of progress toward his release.
In a more recent case, human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou was arrested by Tunisian secret police on March 1, 2005. On April 28, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison because of an Internet article that allegedly “defamed the judicial process” and was “likely to disturb public order.” In the banned Tunisian news Web site, Tunisnews, Abbou compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons to conditions in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib. His sentence was upheld on appeal in June.
The imprisonment of both Jebali and Abbou fly in the face of the most basic standards for freedom of expression and the press and is symptomatic of a broader climate of government repression of the media in Tunisia. In the last year, independent journalists have been routinely harassed by police and security services; many have been placed under surveillance and had their phone lines monitored or arbitrarily cut. Others have faced trumped-up legal charges in retaliation for their published criticisms. In September, the government barred the newly formed, independent Syndicate of Tunisian Journalist from holding its inaugural annual congress.
Despite these serious attacks on freedom of the press, the Tunisian government has purported that it upholds press freedoms, calling them a “tangible reality” in the country.
Next week, Tunis will host the World Summit for the Information Society, a United Nations-sponsored gathering seeking to establish international guidelines for the Internet. CPJ and others have questioned the wisdom of holding a summit on the global exchange of ideas in a country that openly restricts freedom of expression, especially on the Internet.
We believe the summit offers a timely opportunity for Tunisia to back up its stated commitments to freedom of the press and expression. We respectfully urge you to take immediate action to reverse the unjust imprisonment of Hamadi Jebali and Mohamed Abbou, and see to it that they are freed at once. We also call on you to take the necessary steps to ensure the right of Tunisian journalists to carry out their work freely without further interference from the government. Such steps would be a positive indication that Tunisia takes seriously its obligations under international law to uphold freedom of the press.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.