Tunisia should drop charges against Mouldi Zouabi

New York, December 6, 2010–A court in Jendouba is expected to rule Wednesday in a criminal case against Mouldi Zouabi, a senior reporter for the online news outlet Kalima. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Tunisian authorities to drop the charges, which have been brought in reprisal for Zouabi’s critical journalism.

The journalist faces assault charges related to an April 1 episode. Zouabi told CPJ he was assaulted by Khalil Maaroufi, a ruling party member who called the journalist a traitor and seized his driver’s license, press card, and voice recorder. Although the journalist filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office, Zouabi was the one who was charged. (Khalil Maaroufi has denied the journalist’s allegations.)

Zouabi also faces defamation charges related to a 2009 story criticizing the Tunisian Boy Scouts, which are headed by Maaroufi’s father. Zouabi said the piece called for fresh blood in the organization.

Zouabi is known for reporting on poverty and social ills such as shortages of drinking water and electricity. The journalist said the criminal case is the latest example of harassment that started about three years ago and has included surveillance and disruption of Internet service. Zouabi was detained in 2009 along with colleague Omar Mestiri after taking pictures during the presidential elections. 

Tunisian authorities have resorted to fabricated charges in the past. In November 2009, critical columnist Taoufik Ben Brik was arrested and served a six-month sentence on trumped-up charges of assault, property damage, and violating public order. In 2008, journalist Slim Boukhdhir was found guilty of “verbally assaulting a public employee while exercising his duty” and “breaching public decency” in a politicized prosecution. He was sentenced to one year in prison. 

“We call on the Tunisian government to drop the charges leveled against Mouldi Zouabi,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator. “Fabricating criminal charges against journalists is a long-term practice implemented by the Tunisian government. We do not view this as a legal proceeding but rather as a state-directed campaign of harassment in which the judiciary is a willing participant.”