Tunisia blocks journalists from press conferences

New York, March 25, 2010—Tunisian authorities banned journalists from attending two press conferences for the launch of local and international human rights reports this week, and is stepping up harassment of journalists overall, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On Wednesday, police ordered journalists not to attend a press conference at a law office in Tunis where Human Rights Watch was planning to present its report, “A Larger Prison: Repression of Former Political Prisoners in Tunisia.” Several Tunis hotels had refused to host the conference at the request of Tunisian authorities, journalists told CPJ.

Lotfi Hidouri of the London-based news agency Al-Quds Press and the locally blocked online magazine Kalima, and freelance journalist and former political prisoner Slim Boukdhir told CPJ that they were ordered by the police not to leave their homes in the suburbs of Tunis on Wednesday morning. They added that plainclothes police roughed up Mohamed Hamrouni of the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif, and insulted Ismail Debara of the news Web site Elaph. Rachid Khechana, editor of Al-Mawkif, and Lotfi Hajji of Al-Jazeera were prevented more than once from meeting with representatives from Human Rights Watch and accessing public venues over the past few days, Khechana told CPJ.

On Monday, journalists and human rights activists were physically blocked from attending another news conference for the launch by a local group called the International Association to Support Political Prisoners of a report titled “Citizens Under Siege: Administrative Control in Tunisia.”

“We condemn the Tunisian authorities’ heavy-handed tactics designed to stop journalists from doing their jobs,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Tunisia proves itself with every ban, every obstruction of the independent media, to be unable to abide by international standards for freedom of expression.”

In a letter sent to local and international rights and press freedom groups, Khechana called for solidarity with Tunisian independent journalists: “I am calling on all the defenders of journalists and human rights to raise their voices to denounce this security wrecking and try to bring to an end to police harassment and all kinds of pressure exerted on free pens,” he said.

Freelance journalist Sofiene Chourabi told CPJ that on Wednesday Tunis airport police searched him and confiscated books he had bought in Egypt, including the annual report of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. In February, airport police confiscated books including CPJ publications from rights lawyer and blogger Mohamed Abbou and Hidouri.

CPJ’s repeated calls on Tunisian authorities to loosen their grip on the media, release journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, and overturn a four-year prison sentence against Fahem Boukadous have been met with silence.