CPJ alerts Rice to threats in Tunisia

The Hon. Condoleezza Rice

Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

Via Facsimile: +1 202 647 2283

September 23, 2008

Dear Secretary Rice:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express its deep concern about the safety of Slim Boukhdhir, a Tunisian Internet journalist who has faced increasing harassment since he echoed your recent call to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to take further steps toward media and Internet reform.

Boukhdhir, who spent eight months in prison until July for writing articles critical of President Ben Ali and his in-laws’ rising influence over politics and economics, was abducted Saturday evening as he was heading to an Internet cafe in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city. He was forced into a small car and taken first to a police station near the city’s old district and then to an isolated area about 9 miles (15 kilometers) west of Sfax. There, he said, his captors threatened him before forcing him from the car.

Boukhdhir told CPJ that he believes the abduction was sparked by his recent article urging Ben Ali to follow your advice to loosen the state’s grip on civil society. His September 9 piece was posted on the officially banned Tunisian news site Tunisnews and the Egyptian news site Al-Masryun. He argued that the call for reform you made at the Carthage Presidential Palace on September 6, and which was largely ignored by the state-run media, was an opportunity for Ben Ali to make progress.

The journalist, his lawyer, and a prominent human rights advocate in Tunis told CPJ that they were certain that his captors were plainclothes security agents, and that the abduction was in line with Ben Ali’s unwavering strategy to warn and silence dissidents and independent journalists. Boukhdhir told CPJ that the kidnappers said he would meet “the same fate as Libyan Internet journalist Daif Al Ghazal,” who was kidnapped and killed in 2005.

CPJ is shocked by this menacing treatment of our colleague, who has already paid a heavy price for his independent journalism. Beyond the regular harassment he endures, he is still being deprived of his right to a passport.

In light of rising attacks on journalists in Tunisia, CPJ conducted a fact-finding mission in June-July in this small North African country, where paradoxically, there is less room for independent journalism than in other Arab countries facing greater social and economic problems. CPJ’s investigation found that Ben Ali’s regime, which promotes itself as a progressive protector of human rights has been, in fact, aggressively silencing over the past two decades journalists and others who challenge policies or tackle issues such as  corruption, nepotism, and the lack of rule of law. In a new report, “The Smiling Oppressor,” CPJ shows how journalists are subject to routine imprisonment, assault, harassment, and censorship.

In 2004, President George W. Bush publicly reminded President Ben Ali during a White House visit of “the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process.” We now respectfully ask you to urge the Tunisian government, which is a long-term friend and ally of the United States, to stop intimidating critical journalists and to allow an independent inquiry into Boukhdhir’s abduction.

We eagerly await your reply.
Joel Simon
Executive Director