CPJ presses Tunisia on poor press freedom record

March 19, 2009

His Excellency Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
President of the Republic of Tunisia
Presidential Palace
Carthage, Tunis

Via facsimile: +216-71-744-721

Dear Mr. President,

The Committee to Protect Journalists urges you on the eve of the 53rd anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France to end an ongoing cycle of repression of critical journalists and media outlets. We ask that you abide by the commitment you have made repeatedly since coming to power in 1987 to promote freedom of expression. The last time you reiterated this commitment was in November 2008 at a rally in Tunis marking the 21st anniversary of your ascent to power.

In spite of this perfunctory pledge and the unsubstantiated claim made by your government in November–in response to a CPJ special report entitled “The Smiling Oppressor“–that the Tunisian media landscape was “liberal and pluralistic,” our research shows that precisely the opposite is true; acts of reprisal against critical journalism are routine, systematic, and continue unabated. The failure to protect freedom of expression is all the more disheartening because Tunisia was among the first countries in the region to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to do so without reservations–in 1968 and 1969, respectively.

In just the past two months, CPJ has documented the following transgressions by Tunisian authorities, which thoroughly belie every statement made by you and your government about its proclaimed commitment to increased press freedom over the past two decades:

  • Police shut down the office of Radio Kalima and confiscated its equipment on January 30. A legal case has since been lodged against Sihem Bensedrine, managing director of Kalima and one of the country’s most harassed journalists, for “broadcasting at frequencies without a legal permit,” despite the fact that there is no provision in Tunisian law prohibiting radio broadcasts via the Internet. At the time, CPJ called for the immediate end of the siege of the Tunis office of Radio Kalima, which started broadcasting on January 26 via satellite and on the Internet from Italy. During that siege, a plainclothes officer threatened Omar Mestiri, managing editor of the Web magazine Kalima with a knife. The Web site shares office space with the radio station of the same name.
  • The opposition weekly Al-Tariq Al-Jadid published court proceedings against a local labor leader involved in unrest in the southern town of Gafsa in 2008, which led on January 31 to the seizure of issue 113 of the weekly, Al-Tariq Al-Jadid and local rights groups said.
  • On February 4, an appeals court in the southern town of Gafsa upheld a six-year prison sentence in absentia against Fahem Boukadous, correspondent for the satellite television station Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi for “belonging to a criminal association” and spreading materials “likely to harm public order.” Boukadous’ only crime, according to human rights lawyers and international observers who monitored his trial, was to report for the Tunisian television station that broadcasts from Italy about demonstrations against corruption and cronyism among government and labor official in the south of the country. Boukadous, who is currently in hiding, was sentenced with 37 others to prison by a lower court in Gafsa in December. Other correspondents of Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi television, including Ayman Rezgui, have often been harassed and briefly detained by the police.
  • On March 11, the Tunisian Syndicate for Free Radio Stations issued a statement deploring what it called “the increasing pressure over the past weeks on the Web ‘Radio 6 Tunis’ by Tunisian authorities.”  Police prevented Abdel Wahab Maatar, a regularly harassed human rights lawyer, from accessing the office of Radio 6 Tunis for a scheduled interview on February 19 and blocked access to the station’s Web site following a meeting with a U.S. diplomat based in Tunis. “This is a dangerous episode in a series of cases of harassment of audiovisual outlets and a violation of the right to inform and to free expression. Radio Kalima was a recent victim following the closure of its office, the confiscation of its equipment and the ill-treatment and even the detention of its journalists,” the statement said.
  • On March 13, for the third time since February, the government hindered the distribution of opposition Arabic-language weekly Al-Mawkif. The editor, Rachid Khechana, told CPJ that the government obstructed the distribution of issue 489 probably because it reproduced a petition signed by five women judges calling for an end to the harassment inflicted on them since 2005, and the need to abide by international standards for the independence of the judiciary. While the government didn’t prevent the publication from going to print, it pressured the privately owned company that distributes newspapers to kiosks to not deliver more than two copies of the paper to each vendor, according to a press release issued by Al-Mawkif. The same tactic was employed with the distribution of issues 485 and 486, which appeared in February, the statement said. This is the latest attempt to silence a newspaper already deprived of public support and advertising revenue–which is selectively granted by the Tunisian Agency for External Communication to newspapers close to the government–and whose journalists are routinely denied access to sources of information and facilities. Al-Mawkif is currently facing a trial for defamation that is described by many human rights lawyers as politically motivated. The case was filed in 2008 by five companies involved in marketing cooking oil, although none of the companies were mentioned by name. After several court hearings, Al Mawkif decided on March 17 to no longer attend the proceedings because of what it described to CPJ as “the lack of impartiality and fairness on the part of the court.”
  • Also on March 13, Abdallah Zouari, a former reporter for the now-defunct Islamist weekly Al-Fajr, who has been forced to live under “administrative control” and strict police surveillance hundreds of miles away from his family since his release from an 11-year prison term in 2002, was detained for nearly five hours at a police station in the suburbs of the southern city of Zarzis. According to journalists who spoke with CPJ, the police interrogated him about his involvement in a campaign to win the release of political prisoners held by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Zouari is not allowed to leave the  village where he has been forced to live without police authorization.
  • On March 14 Lotfi Hajji, Tunis correspondent for Al-Jazeera, and Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer who writes online, were prevented from traveling to the southern city of Chebba to take part in a conference on the role of the media in promoting human rights. Police stopped their respective cars and forced them to turn around. “It was a gross attack on the basic right to freedom of movement and expression,” Hajji told CPJ. Hajji has been a frequent target of persecution. He has been denied media accreditation and his freedom of movement and access to public meetings have been severely restricted since he joined Al-Jazeera and co-founded with a group of independent reporters a short-lived autonomous journalists syndicate in 2004. Hajji and other journalists, including Slim Boukhdhir, who has been subjected to constant harassment since his release from prison in July 2008, were prevented on March 11 from attending a meeting on the plight of human rights defenders in the region at the Tunis branch of Amnesty International.
  • Abbou’s freedom of movement has also been severely restricted and plainclothes police have frequently followed him since his release from prison in 2007. He was incarcerated for more than 28 months for contributing articles to the locally blocked news Web site Tunisnews, where 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. Tunis airport police have prevented Abbou from traveling abroad on seven separate occasions since August 2007, with the most recent incident taking place in early March. Abbou was supposed to take part in international conferences on human rights and independent journalism. Authorities have not provided him with justification or legal grounds for this travel ban, he told CPJ.

We urge you in the strongest terms to take immediate and decisive action to implement your repeated commitments to freedom of expression and to abide by the ICCPR. We ask that you urgently instruct government agencies to end their harassment of independent journalists and media outlets without delay.

Thank you for your attention to these pressing matters. We look forward to your reply.


Joel Simon

Executive Director