Tunisian court should drop prison term given to journalist

New York, February 6, 2012–A Tunisian appeals court should throw out the prison sentence against journalist Abdel Aziz al-Jaridi at a February 10 hearing and authorities should use his case as an opportunity to break from the repressive practices of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s era, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

On June 13, a first instance court sentenced al-Jaridi, director of two local dailies, Al-Hadath and Kul al-Nass, to four months in prison and a fine of 10,000 Tunisian dinars (US$6,650) for defaming Mhamed Krichen, Al-Jazeera anchor and program host and CPJ board member, according to news reports. Krichen brought the defamation case against the journalist in April 2011 on charges stemming from a series of articles al-Jaridi wrote, news reports said. Krichen’s lawyer, Chawki Tabib, also told CPJ that al-Jaridi had called Krichen a terrorist and a traitor.

Tabib told CPJ that Krichen had requested that al-Jaridi’s prison sentence be dropped and that he just pay the fine to the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists. Al-Jaridi has been free on appeal, Tabib also said. The lawyer said he was submitting Krichen’s request to the court, which will hear the defense’s appeal on February 10 and have the opportunity to reverse the first instance court’s decision.

Under the 1975 Tunisian Press Code, a journalist can be imprisoned for up to six months for defaming an individual, and fined up to 1,200 Tunisian dinars (US$800). Despite the 1,200-dinar maximum, the court fined al-Jaridi 10,000 dinars under the provisions of the Tunisian Penal Code which grants the presiding judge discretion as to the amount awarded to the injured party.

“We call on parliament to repeal the laws that permit criminal prosecution in defamation cases. Defamation should always be a civil matter,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Journalists found liable for defamation should be penalized by paying damages to the injured party, but they should not be jailed. The court should void Abdel Aziz al-Jaridi’s prison sentence.”

Al-Jaridi, a Ben Ali supporter, has written hundreds of harshly critical articles on dozens of journalists and political opposition figures during the two decades he has managed the two newspapers, according news reports. Other journalists have also accused al-Jaridi of libel in the past, CPJ research shows. In a letter published by a Tunisian daily in April, al-Jaridi issued a formal apology to the people he had criticized over the years, asking for forgiveness and taking full responsibility for his actions.