Opposition newspaper confiscated in Tunisia

New York, July 19, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the apparent censorship of Al-Mawkif, an opposition weekly belonging to the Progressive Democratic Party in Tunisia. Rachid Khechana, left, Al-Mawkif editor-in-chief, told CPJ that 10,000 copies of the newspaper’s Friday edition disappeared from newsstands, apparently confiscated by security agents.

Although a small number of copies are circulated directly to party members, the paper is available mainly through newsstands. Tunisian authorities issued a statement on Sunday flatly denying that they had confiscated copies of the weekly, but the paper’s editors noted that newsstand vendors had witnessed plainclothes agents seizing copies of the paper.

“The readers of our paper did not find copies of [Friday’s] issue either in the capital, Tunis, or in other counties,” Managing Editor Munji Al-Lawz told Elaf, an Arabic online daily based in London. He added that “the newspaper was confiscated without a judicial decision that would justify the confiscation, and without even a notice from the officials responsible for the confiscation, which would explain the reasons behind this action.”

Khechana told CPJ that the censored edition included predictions that the government would amend the constitution to allow President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to seek re-election in 2014. The Tunisian Constitution now imposes an age limit of 75 for presidential office-seekers; Ben Ali will be 78 in 2014. Al-Mawkif published a Progressive Democratic Party statement denouncing the idea of a “presidency for life” and proposing a two-term limit for service.

Al-Mawkif also published an article about Fahem Boukadous, a critical Tunisian journalist who was arrested last week. Boukadous suffers from acute asthma, raising concerns about his health in custody.

“We call on Tunisian authorities to ensure that Al-Mawkif is published and distributed without interference,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “We are alarmed by the continuing violations and harassment of critical journalists and newspapers in Tunisia”. 

Al-Mawkif had been censored once before this year, Khechana said. On March 27, authorities confiscated copies of an issue that included coverage of a Human Rights Watch report on abuses in Tunisia, he said.

On July 9, the U.S. State Department expressed its concern about the press freedom situation in Tunisia. Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters that “the United States is deeply concerned about the decline in political freedoms, notably severe restrictions on freedom of expression, in Tunisia.”