Tunisia seizes weekly, summons editor to court

New York, October 23, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Tunisian government’s decision to seize the latest issue of an opposition newspaper and to summon an independent editor to appear before a public prosecutor.

The Interior Ministry seized the October 22 issue of Mouatinoun, the weekly newspaper of the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties party, for “publishing unlawful allegations,” said Tunisian state-controlled papers on Thursday. The case has been handed to the public prosecutor, state media reported.

Mustapha Ben Jaafar, editor of Mouatinoun, said the seizure was tied to an opinion piece by Neziha Rejiba, editor of the news Web site Kalima. In her piece, Rejiba accused the Tunisian government of being behind the recent destruction of Kalima‘sWeb site. She wrote that the government “gave instructions to hit our Web site because it is a regime of corsairs and highway men.”

Rejiba, one of the country’s most critical journalists, has been summoned to appear before the Tunis public prosecutor on Monday. The appearance could be a precursor to criminal charges. Under Article 49 of the press law, Rejiba could face up to three years in prison and a fine for publishing “false news.”

“The Tunisian government should allow the distribution of the seized issue of Mouatinoun immediately and reverse its decision to summon our colleague Neziha Rejiba to court,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Tunisia presents itself as a modern, democratic society, but when it comes to freedom of the press it is one of the Arab world’s most repressive nations.”

This week, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia expressed alarm about authorities’ decision to jail Rejiba’s husband, the human rights lawyer Mokhatar Jellali, following a road accident.

“The purpose of the persecution of Rejiba and her family is to spread fear among journalists and civil society advocates,” said blogger and lawyer Mohamed Abbou, who spent more than two years in prison for criticizing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in online articles.

In September, a CPJ special report found that authorities regularly harass and imprison critical writers, restrict news content, and use regulatory tactics to block dissenting media.