Tunisia must end reprisals against critical journalists

July 15, 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,

As Tunisia’s October presidential and parliamentary elections draw closer, the Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to you for the second time in four months to protest reprisals against critical journalists and their families. It is inconceivable that free and fair elections can take place in an environment in which independent media are harassed and silenced. We urge you to honor your oft-stated commitment to promote free expression, and we ask that you instruct your government to allow our colleagues to perform their work unhindered.

We are increasingly concerned that acts of reprisal against critical journalists continue without respite while your government repeats its unsubstantiated claim that the Tunisian media landscape is “liberal and pluralistic.” Indeed, it remains far from being liberal or pluralistic, as U.S. Sen. John Kerry noted at the July 7 confirmation hearing of Ambassador Gordon Gray by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Kerry remarked that Tunisia “lags far behind even some of its neighbors in respect for human rights.”

CPJ research shows that no progress has been made toward ending drastic restrictions on independent journalism and halting harassment and intimidation of critical journalists and their families since our 2008 report, “The Smiling Oppressor.” In April, CPJ cited Tunisia as one of the worst countries in the world in respecting online expression.

This poor freedom of expression record 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, doing so without reservations. The constitution adopted in June 1959 unequivocally guarantees free press and free expression.

Unfortunately, the gap between your repeated pledges to uphold Tunisia’s domestic law and international obligations, on the one hand, and the plight of Tunisian media, on the other, has widened over the years, according to local and international human rights groups. In addition to abuses brought to you attention by CPJ on the eve of the 53rd anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France, we would like to raise the following press freedom violations.

Harassment of critical journalists and their families. On July 2, unidentified individuals broke into a small grocery shop owned by Afaf Bennacer, wife of journalist Fahem Boukadous, on the outskirts of the southern city of Gafsa. In addition to taking goods and money, the intruders also destroyed merchandise and took a family photograph of no monetary value–actions that Bennacer said indicate their intention was harassment and intimidation.

Boukadous went into hiding on July 5, 2008, to escape government persecution stemming from his coverage of social unrest in the south of the country for the satellite television station Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi. On February 4, an appeals court in Gafsa upheld his six-year prison sentence for allegedly “belonging to a criminal association” and spreading material “likely to harm public order.” Other Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi correspondents, including Ayman Rezgui, have been harassed and briefly detained by police.

On June 5, the home of Hamadi Jebali, editor of the now-defunct weekly Al-Fajr, who was freed in 2006 after 15 years in prison, was surrounded by police without explanation, the local human rights group Huriyya wa Insaf reported. Jebali told CPJ that he and his wife remain under tight police surveillance and their right to freedom of movement outside their hometown of Sousse is severely restricted. Both applied for passports nearly eight months ago, but their applications remained unanswered. “They seem determined to keep stifling me at a low pace. I cannot move freely or earn a living. But I don’t understand why they are targeting my wife,” he said.

Jebali was first jailed in 1991 for publishing an article calling for the abolition of military tribunals in Tunisia. He was tried by a military court in 1992, along with 279 others accused of belonging to Al-Nahda, a banned Islamist group, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. International human rights groups monitoring the mass trial concluded that the proceedings fell far below international standards of justice.

The plight of Abdallah Zouari, a former reporter for Al-Fajr, remains unchanged: He has been forced to live under “administrative control” and strict police surveillance hundreds of miles from his family since his release from an 11-year prison term in 2002. This month, he told CPJ that he hoped he would be allowed to live with his wife and children in Tunis at the end of this cruel “administrative control” in early August. In March, he was detained for nearly five hours at a police station in the suburbs of the southern city of Zarzis. Zouari is not allowed to leave the village without police authorization.

    Interference with the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists. On May 4, a group of pro-government journalists prevented Neji Bghouri, president of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, from speaking during a press conference in Tunis, amid threats and insults. Bghouri was releasing a report on anti-press attacks to mark World Press Freedom Day. This critical report and the independent line adopted by leading members of the democratically elected syndicate board, particularly their decision not to side with any presidential candidate in the October election, appear to be the main cause of a government-backed campaign of intimidation.

Journalists told CPJ that many reporters, fearful of losing their jobs, signed a petition backed by the Ministry of Communications that expressed no confidence in the syndicate’s board and sought an extraordinary meeting to elect new members. State-controlled newspapers have echoed the position of pro-government journalists who announced that they would hold a meeting on August 15 to take control of the syndicate.

    Bureaucratic obstruction targeting critical journalists. Critical journalists must routinely wait many months for passports to be issued. In August 2008, CPJ wrote to you to protest the government’s refusal since 2003 to grant a passport to the writer Slim Boukhdhir. To date, no explanation has been given about this gross violation of Boukhdhir’s rights; the right to freedom of movement inside and outside one’s country is enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Boukhdhir, a journalist who writes for several Arabic Web sites and newspapers, served nearly a year in prison on baseless charges of insulting a public employee, violating “public decency,” and refusing to hand over identification to police. His arrest in November 2007 occurred soon after he waged a hunger strike to protest the government’s refusal to grant him a passport.

Rachid Khechana, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif and correspondent of the London-based daily Al-Hayat, told CPJ that he applied for a replacement of his lost passport on April 7, but was told by authorities that he might have to wait a year before getting a new one. The refusal to issue new passports to Khechana and his colleague at Al-Mawkif, Mohamed Hamrouni, is viewed by human rights lawyers as an unlawful response to critical writing. Hamrouni who is also correspondent to the Qatari daily Al-Arab, applied for a passport in May. Over the years, even critical Tunisian journalist living in exile have been kept waiting for months before having their passports renewed.

We urge you to take immediate and decisive action to end the harassment of independent journalists and to bring your government’s practices in line with international standards for free expression.

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


Joel Simon
Executive Director