Radio station under siege

New York, January 28, 2009–Plainclothes police surrounded the offices of a newly launched satellite radio station and detained one of its journalists on Tuesday, according to local journalists. Police continued their siege of the station today.

The journalist, Dhafer Otay of Radio Kalima, said he was held for four hours and then released without charge. Officers prevented him and his colleagues from entering the Tunis offices of their independent satellite radio station, Radio Kalima, which had launched on Monday. The station was started by the same team in charge of the locally blocked online magazine Kalima.

The siege of the offices, which also house two human rights groups, the Observatory of Press, Publishing, and Creative Freedom and the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, intensified today with heavier police presence, journalists told CPJ. Some of Kalima’s reporters and contributors are still in the building, and continue to broadcast occasionally; journalists told CPJ that the staff will remain inside until the police leave.

Otay, who has been living and working in the same building, has been ordered by police not to set foot there in the future, Slim Boukhdhir, a freelance journalist released from prison, told CPJ.

“The Tunisian government should lift its siege of Radio Kalima immediately,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Public relations campaigns aimed at presenting the Tunisian government as tolerant cannot conceal the country’s status as one of the Arab world’s top enemies of independent journalism.”

Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer and writer who spent nearly 28 months in prison for criticizing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and denouncing the increasing use of torture since he seized power in 1987, told CPJ: “The kidnapping of Otay and the ongoing siege of Kalima by a huge number of plainclothes police and the attempts to silence a rather small satellite radio have no legal basis. This is a new reminder that there is zero tolerance for independent journalism in this country.”

In a letter to then President-elect Obama in early January, CPJ referred to Tunisia as one of the top censors of news worldwide.

In a written response to CPJ’s highly critical September 2008 special report on Tunisia, “The Smiling Oppressor, the government insisted that Tunisia’s media landscape under Ben Ali’s 21-year rule was “liberal and pluralistic.” This response came amid rising attacks on critical papers and journalists, particularly Kalima and its editorial team.

In October, a public prosecutor issued a court summons to Neziha Rejiba, editor of the online Kalima and one of the country’s most critical journalists, for accusing the government of being behind the October vandalism of the magazine’s Web site. The issue of the weekly paper Mouatinoun, which carried Rejiba’s piece, was seized. The summons could lead to criminal charges in a country where the judiciary is routinely used to settle scores with critical journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists.

In December, Lotfi Hidouri of Kalima, was arbitrarily detained on the day he was scheduled to travel to Lebanon for a regional conference on press freedom. His brief detention was followed by a local and regional smear campaign against Sihem Bensedrine, head of Kalima and a prominent human rights defender, local and international rights groups reported.