In a July 25 speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Tunisian Republic, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali proclaimed that his government had “enriched the information and communication landscape and offered opportunity for the expression of different opinions.” It was an Orwellian moment in a year in which the Ben Ali administration stepped up attacks on independent journalists and blocked numerous online news sites.
The Tunisia Monitoring Group, a coalition of 18 organizations that belong to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, said in April that it witnessed “serious deterioration in the conditions related to freedom of expression,” and cited a list of banned writers, books, and Web sites. The coalition, established to monitor conditions before and after Tunisia hosted the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005, had already called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help assure that “the right to establish media outlets is not solely reserved to individuals or groups close to the [Tunisian] government.” The group highlighted the need for Tunisia to establish a “fair and transparent procedure for the award of broadcast licenses through an independent regulatory body” and to protect “the right to access Internet cafés and to freely surf the Web.”
OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies Internet censorship issues, found Tunisia to be among the worst nations in blocking Web content. In a global survey of government filtering techniques that was released in May, OpenNet Initiative placed Tunisia alongside Burma, China, Iran, Syria, and Vietnam as a nation deeply engaged in “politically motivated filtering.”
In one disturbing case, Omar Mestiri, managing editor of the online magazine Kalima, appeared in a Tunis court in August on defamation charges brought by Mohammed Baccar, a lawyer with close connections to state authorities. The case stemmed from a September 2006 article in which Mestiri criticized the Tunisian Bar Association’s decision to lift Baccar’s disbarment. The prosecution did not question the accuracy of the story in Kalima (a site blocked domestically) but insisted that Mestiri reveal his sources. Baccar unexpectedly withdrew his complaint on August 30. A day later, unknown arsonists torched the office of Ayachi Hammami, the human rights lawyer who had defended Mestiri.
In July, CPJ welcomed the release from prison of human rights lawyer and writer Mohammed Abbou. Abbou was jailed for 28 months because of online articles he wrote criticizing Ben Ali’s autocratic rule. Plainclothes police harassed Abbou’s wife and children throughout the imprisonment, CPJ research shows. Ben Ali granted Abbou and 21 other political prisoners conditional pardons as part of events marking the republic’s 50th anniversary. The government said the freed prisoners would have to serve out their terms if they were ever charged with new offenses.
Tunisian law does not restrict the movements of pardoned prisoners, but police turned Abbou away from the Tunis Carthage Airport on August 24, preventing him from taking part in a talk show on free expression at the London bureau of Al-Jazeera. He was also prevented on October 22 from traveling to Cairo to monitor the trial of Egyptian editor Ibrahim Eissa for a local human rights group.
Two other freed journalists, one released in 2002 and the other in 2006, continued to be denied freedom of movement and the right to earn a living. Abdallah Zouari, a reporter for the now-defunct Islamist weekly Al-Fajr, saw his virtual house arrest, more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) from his wife and children in Tunis, arbitrarily extended for an additional 26-month period. A military court sentenced Zouari in 1992 to 11 years in prison and five years of ?“administrative surveillance” for “belonging to an illegal organization” and “planning to change the nature of the state.” Several weeks after his release in June 2002, he was arrested and forced to move to the outskirts of the southern city of Zarzis, where he was put under continuous police surveillance.
Hamadi Jebali, editor of Al-Fajr and one of the leading figures in the banned Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, also remained under constant monitoring. Jebali spent more than 15 years in prison for publishing an article on the constitutionality of military tribunals, for his membership in an illegal organization, and for “planning to change the nature of the state.”
Local journalists and rights activists said Al-Jazeera reporter Lotfi Hajji, co-founder of the independent Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, was under near-constant siege by police. Hajji, they said, was assaulted, detained, and prevented from working as a journalist. In September, plainclothes police blocked Hajji from entering the offices of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) in Tunis, where its secretary-general, Maya Jribi, and the managing director of the weekly Al-Mawkif, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, were on hunger strike to protest administrative and judicial attacks on free expression and assembly.
Many reporters said they were followed and even assaulted in the streets of Tunis. They included Slim Boukhdhir, whose stories on human rights violations and the increasing influence of Ben Ali’s relatives on the country’s economy have made him a favorite target of plainclothes police. In November, authorities detained Boukhdhir on charges of? “aggression against a public employee” and “violation of public morality standards.” Boukhdhir was sentenced to a year in prison after a trial that observers called a sham. Lotfi Hidouri of Kalima and Aymen Rezgui, a young reporter for the Italy-based satellite channel Al-Hiwar Tunisi, were both assaulted by police; the director of the channel, Tahar Ben Hassine, was briefly detained.
This unrelenting campaign against government critics has led more than 100 journalists to go into exile since Ben Ali seized power in 1987, according to the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate. One of the latest victims of this forced migration was Mohamed Fourati, former contributor to different media outlets, including Al-Mawkif. He settled in Qatar at the end of 2006 as a reporter for the daily Asharq. On March 9, the Court of Appeals in the southern city of Gafsa, nearly 220 miles (350 kilometers) southwest of Tunis, sentenced Fourati in absentia to 14 months in prison for “belonging to an unauthorized association” and “raising funds without authorization,” even though he had twice been acquitted of the charges. The prosecution was triggered by two articles Fourati had written nearly seven years ago for the online magazine Aqlam.
Government attacks on the press targeted independent journalists and the private media. In January, as the first issue of the new French-language magazine L’Expression went to the printer, the privately owned Dar Assabah group, which owns the magazine, received government instructions to delay the launch until further notice. Managing Director Raouf Cheikhrouhou later said Tunisians would be provided with “independent, but responsible information.” The first issue of the weekly was published on October 19.
Al-Mawkif, published by the PDP, was a regular target. On October 1, a Tunis court evicted the newspaper from its longtime offices in a case that was widely seen as a political reprisal. Three times during the year, Editor Rachid Khechana said, plainclothes police removed copies of Al-Mawkif from newsstands—once when the paper ran an opinion piece by Jebali, again when it ran a front-page photo of a schoolmaster hospitalized after a police attack, and a third time when the paper covered the hunger strike by Jribi and Chebbi. The Muwatinoon (Citizens) weekly, launched in January by the opposition Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, also reported police harassment.
The attacks occurred despite several visits to Tunisia by U.S. congressmen and government officials. “Our development would have impressed you far more if Tunisians were free citizens,” journalists Sihem Bensedrine and Neziha Rejiba wrote in an open letter to a May delegation of U.S. congressmen led by Rep. John Tanner. “The examples of other Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Portugal, which have lived through political situations similar to what Tunisia now endures, attest to the extraordinary metamorphosis that can occur as soon as the totalitarian yoke is cast off.”