Tunisia must end harassment of independent journalists

New York, March 22, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Tunisian authorities to end the persecution and imprisonment of a critical journalist and to overturn a four-year jail sentence of another.

Taoufik Ben Brik, a well-known contributor to European media outlets who is currently serving a six-month prison sentence on trumped-up charges, has repeatedly rejected a government offer to end his captivity on the condition that he sign an agreement saying he would stop criticizing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family, local and international media outlets reported over the weekend.

Government envoys visited Ben Brik in Siliana Prison three times earlier this month to urge him to sign a letter saying he would “abide by the constitution and refrain from harming his excellency the president and his family,” Ben Brik’s brother, Jalel Zoghlami Ben Brik, told the Italy-based satellite television broadcaster Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi and the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif on Friday.

“They want to cut off my tongue and break my pen, which is the most precious thing I have, and destroy my journalism career,” Al-Mawkif reported Ben Brik as saying.

This latest attempt to silence Ben Brik occurred about two weeks before an appeals hearing— slated for Tuesday in the southern town of Gafsa—for Fahem Boukadous, correspondent for satellite TV station Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi. Boukadous was sentenced in January by a minor court to a four-year prison term for “belonging to a criminal association” and spreading materials “likely to harm public order” after covering violent labor demonstrations in the Gafsa mining region. The ruling came after he objected to a previous six-year jail term issued while he was in hiding for nearly 17 months. Boukadous told CPJ that he has been free since he emerged from hiding in November 2009 and that more than 40 lawyers have volunteered to represent him on Tuesday at in court.

“The government of President Ben Ali will stop at nothing to silence independent voices,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Our colleague Taoufik Ben Brik is to be applauded for his courage in defending his right to speak out as a journalist. We call on the authorities to order his release and to overturn Fahem Boukadous’ conviction on appeal.”

Attacks on local and international critical journalists have sharply increased since the October 2009 reelection campaign of President Ben Ali for a fifth term. In addition to Ben Brik’s and Boukadous’ jail sentences, Zuhair Makhlouf, correspondent for news Web site Assabil Online spent more than three months in jail on trumped-up charges in retaliation for critical coverage of President Ben Ali and his government.Human rights lawyer and blogger Mohamed Abbou told CPJ that he has received “similar offers” to end his imprisonment as Ben Brik. Abbou spent more than 28 months from 2005 to 2007 in jail for writing about torture and President Ben Ali’s autocratic rule.