In Tunisia, CPJ concludes mission with call for release of jailed journalist

Tunis, Tunisia, July 2, 2008—Jailed Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdir should be freed immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today as it concluded a 10-day fact-finding mission that examined the government’s pattern of silencing the independent press through harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment.

Boukhdir, a contributor to numerous Tunisian and Arab news Web sites, is serving a one-year term in Sfax Prison, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) south of the capital, Tunis, on what are widely seen as fabricated charges of insulting a public employee, violating “public decency,” and refusing to hand over identification to police. Boukhdir was jailed in November 2007 and convicted the following month.

Tunisia, the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists since 2001, frequently brings charges ostensibly unrelated to journalism as way to pressure outspoken reporters while deflecting international criticism, CPJ research shows. Boukhdir, a former reporter for a number of Tunisian newspapers, has been a harsh critic of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family, publishing online articles accusing them of corrupt financial practices. Prior to his arrest, Boukhdhir received numerous anonymous telephone threats and was refused a passport by the government. He was assaulted in Tunis in May 2007 shortly after writing an online story critical of the first lady’s brother.

Police in Sfax arrested Boukhdhir on November 26, 2007, after stopping the cab in which he was riding and demanding identification, according to his lawyers. Officers alleged that Boukhdhir was verbally abusive, triggering a prosecution that was rife with irregularities. Witnesses interviewed by Boukhdir’s lawyers and family members said police falsified statements to incriminate the journalist. The judge at Boukhdir’s trial prohibited prosecution witnesses from being cross-examined. The one-year sentence was not only the maximum allowed by law, it was unheard of for such offenses, defense lawyers said.

“The jailing of Slim Boukhdir is a grave injustice that underscores the alarming state of press freedom in Tunisia,” said CPJ board member Cheryl Gould, who led CPJ’s delegation. “We call on President Ben Ali to do everything in his power to free him at once.”

The Tunisian government and its prison administration denied CPJ’s formal request to visit Boukhdir in Sfax Prison. On June 26, a CPJ representative was turned away from Sfax Prison while attempting to see Boukhdir during visiting hours.

Boukhdir’s family told CPJ that the journalist appears to be in good health but continues to endure difficult prison conditions that include a cramped cell with no running water and occasionally threatening cell-mates. He had previously contracted scabies due to unsanitary prison conditions.

The CPJ delegation, which included Senior Program Coordinator Joel Campagna, also investigated Tunisia’s poor press freedom climate. Tunisian media are heavily restricted, and authorities actively harass the few independent journalists who attempt to write critically of the government, CPJ found. Over the last seven years, Tunisia has imprisoned at least four journalists for prolonged periods.

During its visit CPJ heard testimony from both opposition journalists and reporters in the pro-government press describing a climate of fear, intimidation, and self-censorship—the result of the government’s active harassment and surveillance of outspoken writers.

The cases examined by CPJ include:

  1. The independent online news site Kalima remains banned in Tunisia and authorities denied it permission to launch a print edition as recently as March 2008. Kalima’s office in downtown Tunis remains under constant police surveillance; staff complain of police intimidation, including electronic attacks on their e-mail.
  2. The small opposition weekly Al-Mawkif, one of the few print publications critical of the government, has faced an increasing number of attacks. In March and April, the paper said, authorities prevented distribution of four consecutive issues. Al-Mawkif also faces what it calls a politically motivated and potentially crippling civil lawsuit filed by five companies that market cooking oil. The companies, in lawsuits that were filed simultaneously, allege that the paper published false news in an opinion piece calling for an investigation into reports that contaminated Tunisian cooking oil was illegally exported to Algeria. Each company seeks 100,000 Tunisian dinars (US$87,000) in damages. None of the five companies was named in the article.
  3. Tunisian authorities continue to deny accreditation to Lotfi Hajji, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera. Hajji has been assaulted, detained, barred from news events, and prevented from working as a journalist.
  4. Authorities block news Web sites that publish criticism of the government. Among the blocked sites are Kalima, the popular Web site Tunisnews, and the Web site of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), which has published critical reports on Tunisia’s free expression climate.

Tunisian government officials refused repeated requests to meet with CPJ to hear and respond to the organization’s press freedom concerns. CPJ plans to publish a detailed report on its findings.