Even with Ben Ali virtually assured of victory, his government is allowing no dissent. (AFP)
Even with Ben Ali virtually assured of victory, his government is allowing no dissent. (AFP)

As Tunisian elections near, attacks on press mount

New York, October 22, 2009Tunisian authorities must halt harassment of independent journalists, release a journalist jailed for taking photographs, and allow a prominent French reporter to enter the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ has documented a spike in government attacks on independent journalists as Tunisian presidential and legislative elections approach‎.

“We condemn this wave of intimidation, detention, and attacks on critical journalists,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Coupled with a deep-seated disdain for independent reporting, these attacks further tarnish the image of the Tunisian regime. It’s telling that the government would unleash these tactics as it prepares for elections. Truly democratic nations don’t beat, harass, and jail reporters.”

Tunisia is set to hold elections‎ on Sunday. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is running for a fifth term after coming to power in a bloodless coup 22 years ago. Three other candidates are running in a race that Ben Ali is virtually assured of winning; two of the candidates have said they actually support Ben Ali.

On Tuesday, authorities barred Florence Beaugé, a Le Monde correspondent, from entering the country after she arrived at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport, according to news reports. After spending the night at an airport terminal under tight police surveillance, she was put on flight back to Paris. No official explanation was given. Government sources quoted by Agence France-Presse said she was denied entry because she had “always adopted an obvious malevolence toward Tunisia and systematically took hostile positions.”

Beaugé has covered Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia since 2000, and is widely respected among independent journalists and human rights defenders in the three countries. In comments published in Le Monde on Thursday, Beaugé said her recent interview with Hamma Hammami, an opposition figure and former editor of the banned leftist newspaper Al-Badeel, apparently angered Tunisian authorities. Hammami told Beaugé that he was beaten by the police upon his recent arrival from Paris after calling on Tunisians to boycott what he called “farcical elections.” He also told Le Monde that a flammable liquid was poured into the engine of the privately owned car that he and his wife, human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, took home after he was assaulted at the airport.

On Tuesday, authorities jailed Zuhair Makhlouf, a political activist and contributor to Assabil Online, a Tunisian news Web site, in Nabeul province on a charge of “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” Makhlouf had taken pictures and published an article about pollution in the industrial areas in Nabeul, according to a statement by local human rights organizations. He is currently being held in Al-Mornaguya prison, in the southern suburbs of Tunis. Under the Telecommunications Code, he could be sentenced to up to one year in prison. A hearing is scheduled for November 3, journalists told CPJ.

Also Tuesday, plainclothes police roughed up Sihem Bensedrine, editor of the online print and radio news outlet Kalima, and prevented her from taking part in a workshop concerning coverage of the election campaign, she told CPJ. Lotfi Hidouri, a journalist with Kalima and Al-Quds Press, was barred from the same workshop a day earlier. He has been under tight police surveillance since Saturday, local journalists told CPJ.

Kalima journalists Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri, and Mouldi Zouabi were detained by police for nearly four hours last week after taking pictures of campaign scenes in the northern city of Tabarka without ”authorization“ from the state-run Tunisia External Communication Agency, Bensedrine told CPJ.

Taoufik Ben Brik, one of the country’s most critical journalists, told CPJ that he was assaulted today by a plainclothes officer after he parked his car and headed to a neighboring school to pick up his daughter. ”She was suddenly at my throat and started hitting me and tearing my clothes. She claimed I insulted her. But I am sure this is one of the prices for interviewing human rights and opposition activists for the French weekly Le Novel Observateur. I am extremely shocked and don’t know how to deal with these kinds of oblique attacks,” Ben Brik told CPJ.

Local journalists told CPJ that the government’s pressure on journalists spiked following the publication this month of a book about the Tunisian first lady’s perceived rise in political and economic influence and alleged involvement in corruption. An Associated Press reporter witnessed police at the Tunis-Carthage airport rummaging through ‎luggage belonging to journalists in search of copies of the book, the news agency reported on Wednesday.

On October 10, authorities seized an issue of the weekly Al-Tariq al-Jadeed, owned by the opposition al-Tajdeed Movement, for “violating the electoral codes,” after the paper published the election manifesto of its candidate, Ahmed Ibrahim, the movement said in a statement.

In 2009, CPJ wrote twice to Ben Ali to protest ongoing attacks on journalists.