In Tunisia, government harassment of journalists on the rise

New York, November 4, 2009The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged that Tunisian police stripped and mistreated journalist Taoufik ben Brik, a well-known contributor to French newspapers and one of the top critics of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, during his arrest on October 29. CPJ urges Ben Ali to order Ben Brik’s immediate release and to end the intensifying campaign of intimidation and assaults against critical reporters, and censorship.

Ben Brik, will appear in court on November 19 for “damaging other people’s property,” “violation of public morality standards,” defamation, and “extreme aggression,” one of his lawyers told CPJ. Under the penal code, these charges could bring up to five years in prison.

His arrest occurred a few days after Ben Ali threatened on October 24, on the eve of his reelection for a fifth term in office, to prosecute a “tiny minority” of Tunisians for cooperating with foreign journalists to cast doubt on the results of the presidential and legislative elections before the results were made public. Assaults on critical journalists by plainclothes police and campaigns of intimidation, including by high-ranking officials, have increased since then.


Ben Brik’s lawyers told CPJ that the journalist had been ill-treated, insulted, and stripped of all his clothes at the police station before he was taken to jail. His wife, Azza Zarrad, expressed deep concern about the impact of the imprisonment of her husband on his “serious health problems” and told CPJ that she believed this was “part of a vengeful campaign to humiliate and punish Ben Ali’s critics.”


Five of Ben Brik’s lawyers were prevented on Tuesday from visiting the journalist at the Al-Mornaguia prison in the Southern outskirts of Tunis. “This is a flagrant violation of Tunisian law,” Ayachi Hammami, one of the lawyers, told CPJ.


Also on Tuesday, a minor court in Grombalia, nearly 30 miles (48 kilometers) South of Tunis, postponed the hearing in the case filed against Zuhair Makhlouf, a political activist and contributor to Assabil Online, a Tunisian news Web site, to November 24, for “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” Makhlouf was arrested on October 20. He had taken pictures and published an article about pollution in the industrial areas in Nabeul, according to a statement by local human rights organizations. Like Ben Brik, he is currently being held in Al-Mornaguia prison, in the southern suburbs of Tunis. Under the Telecommunications Code, he could be sentenced to up to one year in prison.


“We are outraged at the treatment of our colleague Taoufik Ben Brik,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “We call on President Ben Ali to ensure his release and the release of Zuhair Makhlouf, and to end this degrading assault on independent journalism.”


Lawyers told CPJ that Sihem Bensedrine, one of the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights defenders, was arbitrarily prevented from entering the Grombalia court and beaten and insulted by plainclothes police. Bensedrine has been repeatedly assaulted and prevented from accessing public places over the past weeks, according to CPJ research.


On October 28, Slim Boukdhir, a journalist jailed in 2007 who has often been assaulted for his criticism of Ben Ali’s autocratic rule and the rising influence of his wife and in-laws over the country’s politics and economy, was kidnapped near his home in Tunis by four men and forced into a car before being beaten and stripped of his clothes and wallet and cell phone. His kidnappers left him in the capital’s largest park, the Belvedere, covered in bruises, Boukhdhir told CPJ. He added that the attack occurred nearly two hours after he gave an interview to the BBC about the reelection of Ben Ali and a new critical book by two French journalists about the president’s wife. Boukkhdhir was kidnapped in September 2008 after writing about then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s brief visit to Tunis and her critical remarks about the declining human rights situation in Tunisia.


Lotfi Hajji, an Al-Jazeera correspondent, was verbally assaulted on arriving at Tunis Carthage International Airport from Qatar late last week, and then before traveling to Beirut, by plainclothes police and warned against the dangerous consequences of “talking about Tunisia,” he told CPJ. Other journalists have been recently harassed or assaulted, such as Lotfi Hidouri and Mouldi Zouabi of Kalima, Ismail Dbara of Radio Netherlands and the Web site Elaph, and Neji Bghouri and Zied el Heni of the ousted board of the National Syndicate of Journalists, lawyers and journalists told CPJ


Restrictions on opposition newspapers have also increased. Authorities prevented the distribution of the October 31 issue of the weekly Attariq al-Jadid of the opposition Attajdid Movement, according to a statement issued by this opposition party.