Tunisian government denies passport to CPJ representative

New York, January 2, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned the Tunisian government’s denial of a passport to Kamel Labidi, a freelance Tunisian journalist and CPJ’s Middle East representative.

On July 17, Labidi, a Tunisian national, applied for a new passport at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington after losing his old one. A representative at the embassy informed him that the passport would be replaced in a matter of days. However, more than five months later and after repeated calls to the embassy from Labidi and CPJ, his passport has yet to be replaced.

Embassy staff has claimed that his passport is awaiting approval from the Tunisian Interior Ministry. Tunisia’s Ambassador to Washington, Mohamed Najib Hachana, has not returned repeated phone calls or responded to a written request for information from CPJ about the embassy’s failure to provide Labidi with a new passport.

“Denying our colleague his right to travel is petty and vindictive and is further evidence of the Tunisian government’s utter contempt for independent journalism and free expression,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Tunisian government to provide Kamel Labidi with his passport at once and to do the same for others similarly denied.”

Tunisian authorities frequently deny passports to critical journalists and human rights activists in retaliation for their outspoken views. The government has refused to give a passport to independent journalist Slim Boukhdir, a freelancer known for his criticism of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and members of the first family. Earlier this month Boukhdir was sent to jail for a year on trumped-up charges of allegedly verbally assaulting a public employee and violating public decency.

Labidi’s passport was previously confiscated by the government for six months in 1996 without any explanation, although the apparent reason was his reporting about human rights violations in Tunisia.

While on assignment for CPJ in Cairo in 2006, Labidi received harassing phone calls from a man Egyptian journalists and human rights activists identified as a plainclothes Tunisian agent working out of the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo.

Tunisia’s press is among the most restricted in the Arab world. Since coming to power 20 years ago, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has virtually eradicated independent journalism from the country. Most newspapers are devoid of any criticism of the government and offer hagiographic coverage of Ben Ali. The government actively harasses the few independent journalists who attempt to write critically of the government—mostly online or for foreign newspapers. Censorship, surveillance, harassment, and violent attacks on critics are common.