Despite its election to the newly established U.N. Human Rights Council in May, Tunisia under the autocratic rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali continued to pursue a policy of muzzling critical media and harassing independent journalists and their families.
In February, the U.N. vote approaching, Ben Ali pardoned Hamadi Jebali, editor of the now-defunct Islamist weekly newspaper Al-Fajr, and hundreds of other political prisoners. CPJ welcomed the release of Jebali, who spent more than 15 years in prison for publishing an article on the unconstitutionality of military tribunals and for membership in the banned Islamist Al-Nahda Movement.
But the pardon soon rang hollow. Shortly after leaving jail, Jebali and his family were targets of police harassment reminiscent of treatment he received before his 1991 arrest. Jebali and his wife were eventually charged with “attempting to bribe a civil servant” when he was still behind bars. Human rights lawyers said the charges were groundless.
Another reporter for Al-Fajr, Abdallah Zouari, remained under police surveillance in the southern city of Zarzis, more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) from his wife and children in Tunis. He was forcibly sent there after his release from prison in 2002 and has been prevented from working or using the Internet. Zouari, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1992 by a military court for “belonging to an illegal organization” and “planning to change the nature of the state,” has gone on several hunger strikes to protest his virtual house arrest since his release.
Imprisoned writer and human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou and his family were also targets of harassment. Abbou was sentenced in April 2005 to three and a half years for work that “defamed the judicial process” and was “likely to disturb public order.” Abbou’s main crime, according to local and international human rights groups, was an opinion piece he wrote for the blocked news Web site TunisNews that compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons to conditions in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib.
Abbou went on hunger strike several times to protest prison conditions and the harassment of his wife, whose weekly visits after long hours on the road to Le Kef Prison near the Algerian border were often arbitrarily ended after only two or three minutes. “It looks like they have instructions to destroy Abbou physically and morally. Sadly, we seem to be closer to the law of the jungle than the rule of law,” human rights lawyer Abderrazak Kilani told CPJ.
CPJ wrote to Ben Ali on June 6 to express its deep concern about the “widening circle of repression of journalists in Tunisia as evidenced by the arbitrary imprisonment of Abbou; the harassment of his wife, and of Jebali and his family; and the brief detention on May 11, and again on June 3, of Lotfi Hajji, president of the independent Tunisian Journalists Syndicate.” As a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Tunisia is required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” according to the U.N. General Assembly resolution that established the council.
Hajji was targeted not only as head of the beleaguered Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, which was prevented from holding its first general assembly in September 2005, but also as a correspondent for Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based satellite television channel is still denied accreditation in Tunisia.
On October 25, the government said it would close its embassy in Qatar to protest what it called a “hostile campaign by Al-Jazeera to harm Tunisia.” The move followed the broadcast of an interview with democracy advocate Moncef Marzouki, who said he would return to Tunisia from exile to take part in peaceful civil resistance to Ben Ali’s rule. The interview spurred court proceedings by the Tunisian authorities against Marzouki for “inciting civil disobedience.” The government accused Al-Jazeera of ignoring “basic rules of journalism and ethics.”
Another local target of the country’s ubiquitous plainclothes police was Neziha Rejiba (also known as Um Ziad), editor of the blocked online magazine Kalima and vice president of the Observatory for Press Freedom, Publishing, and Creation.
After numerous anonymous threats to ruin her reputation and that of her family if she continued her critical journalism, Rejiba in March received a letter posted in France containing fabricated pornographic pictures featuring her husband, lawyer and former member of parliament Mokhtar Jellali.
On May 4, upon her arrival at the Tunis-Carthage airport from Cairo, where she had taken part in a conference on imprisoned Arab journalists, Rejiba was harassed for hours and her personal documents were confiscated.
Rejiba, Kalima co-editor Sihem Bensedrine, and freelancer Souhayr Belhassen have been frequently assaulted and harassed in recent years. On the eve of the World Summit on the Information Society in November 2005, they were harassed by plainclothes police and called “prostitutes.” On July 21, 2006, Rejiba was prevented from attending a meeting at the office of a local rights group in Tunis and insulted by plainclothes police, who forced her into a cab. They told the cab driver she was a prostitute and ordered him to take her away.
A fifth fact-finding mission conducted by members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group concluded in April that “violations of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and other basic human rights are still rampant.”
Although self-censorship is prevalent, government bodies and ministries often dictate newspaper content. Papers such as the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif, the most frequently harassed of the authorized publications, often disappeared from newsstands following instructions from the Interior Ministry. On October 2, Al-Mawkif editor and Progressive Democratic Party chief Ahmed Néjib Chebbi appeared before the assistant public prosecutor in Tunis on charges of changing printing houses without Interior Ministry authorization. Chebbi denied that Al-Mawkif used a different printing house. “This is part of an ongoing cycle of political and financial pressure on Al-Mawkif aimed at stifling its voice,” Chebbi said.
The Interior Ministry also tightened its grip on foreign papers, banning several issues of the French dailies Le Monde and France Soir, the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, and the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi. Many other European publications and Arab papers such as Al-Hayat disappeared from Tunisian newsstands years ago.
The September 19 issue of the French daily Le Figaro was banned because it carried an opinion piece deemed defamatory of Islam in the wake of Pope Benedict’s remarks on the Islamic faith. In a lecture that month in Germany, Benedict cited centuries-old texts asserting that Islam was spread by the sword. Use of the quotations, which the pope said did not reflect his own opinions, provoked widespread anger in Muslim countries.
Authorities also halted distribution of Le Figaro’s edition of October 18. The issue carried a story on the alleged involvement of a Ben Ali relative in the May theft of a yacht owned by Parisian banker Bruno Roger and the smuggling of stolen French luxury vessels to Tunisia.
Foreign journalists critical of Ben Ali are not welcome in the country. In September, French journalist Léa Labaye of the satirical news Web site Bakchich was denied entry upon her arrival from Paris at the Tunis airport. No official explanation was given to Labaye, who in August wrote a critical review of a book by Antoine Sfeir, a French writer close to the Tunisian authorities, that praises Ben Ali.
Journalists contributing to opposition papers, news Web sites, and foreign and Arab media were often denied press cards and harassed for covering issues such as torture, corruption, and the lack of judicial independence. Coverage of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, established in 1977 and the first organization of its kind in the Arab world, was also taboo.
The number of blocked news Web sites continued to rise. One of the latest victims was the online weekly Le Maghrébin, run by the Maghreb Alliance for Democracy. The pro-democracy group is headed by Omar Shabou, who, in 1991, became the first Tunisian journalist imprisoned for his work under Ben Ali. Shabou fled to France after his release.
Subscribers to TunisNews, circulated via e-mail and the main source of independent information for tens of thousands of Tunisians, unexpectedly received a British soccer report on August 19 instead of the journal’s usual selection of news and opinion. The team in charge of TunisNews later explained that the site came under an electronic attack that also caused its mailing list to disappear.