After CPJ letter, Tunis grants journalist freedom to travel

Nearly a week after CPJ sent a letter to Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali urging him to end the “ongoing cycle of repression of critical journalists and media outlets,” Tunisia’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights told Mohamed Abbou, a prominent human rights lawyer and writer, in a phone call on Saturday that he was free to travel abroad.

“There is no doubt that CPJ’s letter and other actions recently undertaken by international human rights groups helped prompt this phone call, ” Abbou told CPJ. He said he had been arbitrarily prevented from leaving the country by Tunis airport police on seven separate occasions.

“They finally acknowledged that no decision has ever been made to prevent me from leaving the country after my release from prison in July 2007,” Abbou said. The Tunisian Bar Association was also informed by phone the same day that there were no travel restrictions imposed on Abbou, journalists told CPJ.

On the eve of the 53rd anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France, on March 19, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon told Ben Ali that various transgressions, including arbitrary restrictions on Abbou’s right to freedom of movement by Tunisian authorities, “thoroughly belie every statement” he and his government have made about their “proclaimed commitment to increased press freedom over the past two decades.”

Simon urged “in the strongest terms” Ben Ali to take “immediate and decisive action” to implement his “repeated commitments to freedom of expression” and to honor his country’s pledge to abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Abbou was incarcerated for more than 28 months for contributing articles to the locally blocked news Web site Tunisnews, in which he compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons to conditions in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison and denounced the subservience of Tunisia’s judiciary to the executive branch of government.

In the last few months, international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the World Association of Newspapers, and IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group invited Abbou to take part in international meetings in different parts of the world. So did the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel. But Abbou was prevented from leaving the country. His freedom of movement within Tunisia had also been tightly restricted. Plainclothes police have often followed him–they even did today, Abbou told CPJ.

This isn’t the first time the Tunisian government has prevented a journalist from leaving the country. In August 2008, CPJ wrote to Ben Ali to protest his government’s continuing refusal to grant journalist Slim Boukdhir a passport. To date, Boukdhir still doesn’t have one, and is often harassed since his release from prison in July. The journalist was released just a few weeks after a CPJ mission to Tunisia; the findings of that trip were discussed in our report, “The Smiling Oppressor.”

Boukdhir wrote about the state of freedom of expression in his country on the CPJ Blog on March 26.