State Department replies to CPJ on Tunisia

As we noted in a recent special report, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali relies on spying and intimidation to keep his citizens in line. The United States has been a friend and supporter of Ben Ali and not at all consistent in calling attention to ongoing human rights abuses, particularly the harassment, intimidation, and jailing of the country’s small number of independent journalists.

That is why the recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so important. During a visit to Tunisia back in September, Rice called on the Tunisian government to implement democratic reforms–including greater respect for press freedom. Not surprisingly, Rice’s comments were largely ignored by the state-run media. When one courageous journalist, Slim Boukhdhir, echoed her call in an online commentary, state security agents picked him up and harassed and threatened him. 

While Boukhdhir was recently released after serving an eight-month prison sentence on trumped-up charges, he continues to face government harassment. We have been outraged by Boukhdhir’s treatment, and wrote to Rice on September 23 and asked her to intervene personally.

Today we received an encouraging response from C. David Welch, assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. Welch noted that the U.S. government is concerned by the continued harassment of Boukhdhir. We trust that this concern has been conveyed directly to the government of Tunisia. The U.S. government must stand with dissidents who risk their own lives and liberty to echo Rice’s appeal for reform in a country where dissent is not tolerated. 

Here’s Welch’s letter.