New York, April 21, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about the Tunisian government’s increasing harassment of the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif.
Over the past month, Tunisian authorities have prevented distribution of 4 issues of Al-Mawkif, published since 1984 by the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). The paper has been targeted by a separate defamation suit filed by five privately owned companies at the instigation of government officials, Rachid Khechana, editor of Al-Mawkif, told CPJ
Khechana explained that plain clothes police regularly seized copies of the newspaper at kiosks in different parts of the country in addition to continuous pressure to thwart its distribution.
“Four successive issues have been seized without any judicial or legal ground. It is clear that these acts preventing Al-Mawkif to hit the news stands are part of the continuous harassment aimed at bringing the paper to its knees and forcing it to close down,” said statement issued by Al-Mawkif on April 12. “The latest act is the decision to take the managing editor and the editor to court.”
Khechana said CPJ that 5 companies involved in the business of importing and marketing cooking oil have filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the weekly allegedly for “spreading false news” and “harming their interests.” Nejib Chebbi, the paper’s managing editor of the paper and Khechana have been summoned to appear in court in on May 10. Each of the 5 companies is asking for 100,000 Tunisian dinars (US$86956), as immediate damages before the court decision. Lawyers told CPJ that the principal aim behind this suit seems to impose crippling damages which would lead to the closure of Al-Mawkif and the confiscation of Chebbi and Khechana’s personal assets, not to their imprisonment.
The legal action against the newspaper was triggered by an April 4 editorial piece by Khechana that called for a transparent investigation into allegations that Tunisian cooking oil that was illegally exported to neighboring Algeria was found out to be contaminated and unhealthy. “There is no democratic regime in Algeria. But there is a free press which lifted the veil on this issue and shed light on all its dimensions,” wrote Kechana in the issue of Al-Mawkif whose distribution was prevented by plain clothes police in early April.
“Tunisian authorities obviously stand behind this lawsuit. Because none of these five different companies have been mentioned by name or ever referred to in the editorial piece. And how come they handpicked the same lawyer to file the suit on their behalf and used exactly the same words and requested the same amount of damages?” asked Khechana, who maintains that the only remaining way to protect Al-Mawkif and freedom of expression in the country is “to reluctantly go on hunger strike.”
Journalists and activists say that the lawsuit against Al-Mawkif and the seizure of its editions have been spurred by its coverage of PDP former leader Nejib Chebbi’s repeated declarations that he will run for president in 2009, and challenge 20 year incumbent president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. They are also irked at Al-Mawkif critical coverage of the rising cost of living and unemployment and recent social unrest in the south of the country.
In September, Chebbi and Maya Jribi, secretary-general of the PDP, went on a long hunger strike to denounce what they called “the systematic exploitation of the judicial system by the government to silence all opposition voices.” The hunger strike came to an end when a politically motivated court case aimed at evicting Al-Mawkif from the premises it has been using in downtown Tunis since 1994 was dropped.
“We deplore the ongoing harassment and censorship of Al-Mawkif and call on the Tunisian government to put an end to it at once,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.