CPJ calls for end to Tunisian campaign against Al-Jazeera

New York, September 24, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Tunisian government-backed smear campaign against the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television station. The campaign has had a negative impact on freedom of expression in Tunisia.

State-controlled media outlets have been attacking Al-Jazeera since July, when the station covered a conference in Geneva on the right of exiled Tunisian dissidents to return home and aired interviews with leading critics of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, journalists told CPJ.

“Instead of backing a shameful and intimidating smear campaign against our colleagues, the Tunisian government should end its unrelenting war on independent journalism at home and abroad,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “One of the goals of this campaign is to silence all dissenting voices at a time when Tunisian media is brazenly being used to campaign for a fifth five-year term for President Ben Ali in the upcoming October election.”

Al-Jazeera correspondents told CPJ that Tunisians they contacted for stories either were not available to comment or simply declined to give their thoughts.

“The most negative impact of this unparalleled and degrading smear campaign was the climate of fear it generated among many Tunisians who, over the past weeks, declined to be interviewed by Al-Jazeera,” a journalist told CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution. The government, the journalist said, wants “to control this network as if it were a beleaguered Tunisian media outlet.”

The latest issue of Kull En-nass, a private weekly close to the Ministry of the Interior claimed on Saturday in a front-page story that everything in Qatar, including the media, is controlled by Israel. It also falsely attributed a quote to Wadah Khanfar, director of the Al-Jazeera Network, describing his own station, the most popular news network in the region as an “American and Israeli Arabic-speaking network.” Kull En-nass and its weekly sister publication, Al-Hadath, specialize in attacking Ben Ali’s top critics, local journalists and human rights defenders told CPJ.

In a front-page series titled “Al-Jazeera, the Naked Truth,” Kull En-nass has been attacking the Qatari ruling family, which established Al-Jazeera—the most influential television network in the Arab world—in 1996, and claiming that its patrons and journalists “are living in an underworld of shamelessness, prostitution, and sex” and “bowing to the influence” of the United States and Israel. So far neither Al-Jazeera nor the Qatari authorities have publicly reacted to this campaign of insults and intimidation.

Other media outlets, including newspapers owned by the ruling party, Ben Ali’s son-in-law and rising businessman and politician Sakhr Al-Materi, and the pro-government satellite television station Hannibal, took part in the smear campaign against Al-Jazeera, whose critical coverage led Tunis to close its embassy in Qatar for months in 2006 and continuously deny accreditation to Al-Jazeera’s Tunis correspondent Lotfi Hajji.

“There is no doubt that Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Tunisia increasingly angers high-ranking officials, particularly as the legislative and presidential elections draw closer and the state-controlled media’s credibility keeps declining,” Mohamed Abbou, a prominent human rights lawyer and blogger told CPJ.

Abbou and critical journalists like Abdallah Zouari, Sihem Bensedrine, and Naziha Réjiba have been also often the target of government-backed smear campaigns. On Friday, political police detained Zouari for nearly eight hours and threatened to tarnish his reputation by posting on the Internet a videotape on his alleged sexual conduct if he did not stop writing critically about the government. Zouari was forced until August to live hundreds of miles away from his family for seven years. Police surveillance around his home was arbitrarily restored on Saturday, he told CPJ.

In 2009, CPJ wrote twice to Ben Ali to protest increasing attacks on journalists and called for the end of the long and arbitrary “administrative control” of Zouari. Earlier this month, CPJ condemned the use of the administration and the judiciary to oust the democratically elected board of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists.