Tunisian court evicts weekly from office

New York, October 2, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by a Tunisian court decision to evict the weekly Al-Mawkif from premises it has been using in downtown Tunis since 1994.

On Monday, a misdemeanor court in Tunis ordered the eviction of Al-Mawkif, published since 1984 by the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), allegedly for breach of contract and using the premises for political purposes.

The suit was filed by a private landlord who argued that the contract stated that the premises were meant to be used as a newspaper office, not as headquarters of a political party. Al-Mawkif and its lawyers chose to boycott the court hearing and not to appeal the ruling, which they described as “politically motivated.”

“Tunisia’s courts once again appear to be to doing the government’s bidding in harassing outspoken journalists and newspapers,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “This case shows the climate of intimidation and harassment that independent voices in Tunisia regularly face.”

Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent human rights lawyer and head of a local organization known as the Association against Torture in Tunisia, said the case fits a recent pattern. “There is no doubt that the authorities are behind this case and several others, which led over the past months to the eviction of the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Progressive Democratic Party from most of their respective offices in different parts of the country,” she said. “The purpose is to stifle the remaining critical voices in Tunisia by using the judiciary, which totally lost people’s confidence.”

Journalists at Al-Mawkif believe the case was brought in response to pro-democracy discussions hosted by the newspaper in recent months. Rachid Khechana, editor of Al-Mawkif, told CPJ that the discussions, particularly a conference in July on ways to prepare the ground for democratic rule, prompted officials to expedite an eviction lawsuit that was first filed in April.

Al-Mawkif staff had launched a protest in anticipation of Monday’s ruling. Nejib Chebbi, managing editor of Al-Mawkif, and Maya Jribi, secretary-general of the PDP, have staged a hunger strike since September 20 to denounce what the PDP called “the systematic exploitation of the judicial system by the government to silence all opposition voices.”Civil society advocates and Western diplomats paid visits to the hunger strikers amid police surveillance and harassment of journalists.

Plainclothes police blocked Lotfi Hajji, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera, from gaining access to Al-Mawkif offices. “I was savagely assaulted by thugs who tore my clothes and prevented me from doing my job, including when the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia came to visit the hunger strikers on September 28,” Hajji told CPJ.

“The Tunisian government should immediately give instructions to all police to stop harassing Lotfi Hajji and let him do his job as correspondent of Al-Jazeera without further hindrance,” said Simon