Marking an anniversary, Ben Ali should end repression

New York, November 7, 2008–On the 21st anniversary of the coup that brought Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to power, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the longtime leader to end his government’s repressive media tactics.

Ben Ali, who seized power from Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup, has pursued some of the most restrictive press tactics in the Arab world, CPJ research shows. Through years of harassment, censorship, and imprisonment of journalists, Ben Ali has largely eradicated independent journalism in the country. Most media outlets operate under strict self-censorship, and the country’s few independent journalists are subjected to surveillance and intimidation. CPJ documented the government’s poor press freedom record in a September special report, “The Smiling Oppressor.”

Speaking at a rally to mark the 21st anniversary of his takeover, Ben Ali said the government has “continuously striven to promote public freedoms, particularly freedom of expression” and “taken various initiatives to promote the media landscape and improve its performance.”

CPJ urged Ben Ali to make good on those remarks. “Abroad, Tunisia tries to portray itself as a democracy that respects human rights and press freedoms,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “At home, reality for independent journalists is intimidation, harassment, and prison.”

The government has increased pressure on independent journalists in recent weeks. In September, plainclothes security agents abducted Slim Boukhdhir, an online writer and critic of Ben Ali. Agents held him for two hours, threatened him, and directed him to stop his work. Boukhdhir had just written an online piece urging Ben Ali to follow the advice of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and loosen the state’s grip on civil society. Authorities had harassed Boukhdhir in the past, jailing him for several months earlier in the year.

In October, the public prosecutor issued a court summons to Neziha Rejiba, editor of the online magazine Kalima and one of the country’s most critical journalists. In a piece for the weekly Mouatinoun, Rejiba accused the government of being behind the recent destruction of her Web site. The summons could be a precursor to criminal charges. Authorities also seized the entire issue of Mouatinoun.