Tunisia jails two critical journalists and harasses others

New York, December 1, 2009The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the rising imprisonment of critical journalists in Tunisia. Harassment has been escalating since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali threatened to prosecute anyone who casts doubt on his reelection for a fifth five-year term in office on October 25. Journalists Zuhair Makhlouf and Taoufik Ben Brik were both sentenced to jail terms in the past week. Ben Brik has filed an appeal and Makhlouf plans to, according to their lawyers. 

Police harassment of critical journalists has been on the rise over the past weeks. CPJ 2009 International Press Freedom Award winner Naziha Réjiba told CPJ that the deputy chief of Tunis’ airport police verbally abused her on Saturday on her arrival from New York. While such harassment is not uncommon, she said, this time was worse than in previous instances. Plainclothes police prevented journalists with the opposition weeklies Al-Mawkif, Attariq al-Jadid, and Mouatinoun from entering their offices on November 19. Police have prevented others, including Sihem Bensedrine of Web site Kalima and Lotfi Hajji, an Al-Jazeera correspondent in Tunis, from leaving their homes or hometowns, journalists told CPJ.

“We urge the appeals court to overturn the verdicts against Zuhair Makhlouf and Taoufik Ben Brik,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “This latest ruthless crackdown on our colleagues is further proof that the government in Tunis has no tolerance for an independent press.”

Earlier today, a minor court in Grombalia, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Tunis, sentenced Makhlouf, a political activist and correspondent for Assabil Online, a Tunisian news Web site, to three months in prison for “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” The court also ordered him to pay 6,000 Tunisian dinars (US$4,700) in damages.

Makhlouf was arrested on October 20 after taking pictures and publishing an article about pollution in industrial areas of Nabeul, 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of Tunis, according to local human rights groups. His lawyers told CPJ that the arrest was politically motivated and the trial unfair and that police had used force to prevent journalists from accessing the court.

On November 26, a Tunis minor court handed a six-month jail sentence to Ben Brik, a well-known contributor to French newspapers and one of Ben Ali’s top critics, on a series of trumped-up charges, including assaulting a woman, damaging property, harming public decency, and defamation. Many journalists said that interviews Ben Brik conducted before the elections with some of Ben Ali’s leading critics, and a satirical story making fun of the president’s de facto life term he wrote for the Web site of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, were behind his current sentence.

He was not brought to court when the verdict was issued and his family and lawyers who were repeatedly denied the right to visit him found out over the weekend that he was transferred from Mornaguia Prison in the suburbs of Tunis to Siliana Prison, nearly 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of the Tunisian capital. Ayachi Hammami, one of Ben Brik’s lawyers, told CPJ that the journalist’s detention conditions have worsened. “His wife and relatives were allowed to see him on Monday only for a few minutes and were prevented from handing him his medicine,” he said. “He told them that he went on a hunger strike for nearly a week to protest this vengeful and scandalous ordeal.”