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World Press Freedom Review
2000 World Press Freedom Review
Like chess, the story of journalist Ben Brick in the last three years has displayed an opening, a middle game and, hopefully, this year saw an endgame. Ominously, the opening began in 1998 with Brick’s arrest for alleged revelations concerning police brutality, and quickly developed into a repressive middle game in 1999 with Brick suffering telephone threats, vandalism to his property, arrest and attacks on his family. The resulting endgame, in which a number of organisations played a significant role, saw Brick undertake a hunger strike in order to force the Tunisian authorities to return his passport. Thankfully, the situation was resolved but developments in November seemed to imply that there are still additional moves to be made.
The almost continuous intimidation and harassment of Brick, the favourite target of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime, reached its peak in the year 2000. On 3 April, Brick, a correspondent for the French daily La Croix, the Infosud and Syfia news agencies and the founder of a local human rights monitoring group, appeared in court on charges of, "publishing false information" and "offending public institutions". Charges against the journalist arose from two articles that criticised human rights in Tunisia that appeared in the Swiss dailies Le Courrier and La Tribune de Genève. Brick faced up to six years in prison if convicted of the charges. Authorities have also consistently refused to issue the journalist with a new passport.
In order to protest the refusal of the Tunisian authorities to issue a new passport to the journalist, Brick began a hunger strike on the same day as his court appearance. On 10 April, thinner and weaker, he appeared for a second time in court before the chairman of the magistrates, Noureddine Ben Ayed. After a medical visit on 12 April, an examining doctor stated "Taoufik Ben Brick must end his hunger strike. He has already lost 11 kilos, which is far too much."
According to sources inside Tunisia, on the same day as his second court appearance, police officers entered the offices of the Aloès publishing house, where Brick had been on hunger strike to protest at the Interior Ministry's refusal to return his passport. Following an order by the governor of Tunis, police closed the offices after violently evicting Brick and his supporters.
Interestingly, the governor of Tunis justified the closure by suggesting that an unauthorised meeting held at the Aloès publishing house on 9 April, which focused on freedom of expression issues, had "disturbed the public order". As a result of the actions of the authorities, Brick moved the centre of his hunger strike to the offices of the Conseil National Pour Les Libertés en Tunisie (CNLT). Since the start of his hunger strike, Brick had subsisted on a solution of water mixed with sugar.
The hunger strike left Brick in a serious condition; he was severely undernourished, suffering from low blood pressure and visceral lesions that are the visible signs of his refusal to accept sustenance. For this reason, a visiting medical team decided to, "hospitalise him in a specialized environment, at the latest by the morning of 24 April." "This hospitalisation is not negotiable," they added. On 24 April, Brick was taken to a hospital in Tunis on advice from his doctors, who said his life was at risk. The journalist had reportedly lost 39 pounds. After a brief stay at the hospital he was taken to a Tunis clinic. Police reportedly maintained a tight presence at the hospital and at his home.
On 26 April, Taoufik Ben Brick decided to call a halt to his 24-day old hunger strike. Later that day, however, police cordoned off his home, preventing visits from foreign journalists, Tunisian supporters and doctors. During a confrontation with the authorities, the following people were beaten and detained: Ali Ben Salem, the Treasurer of the National Council for CNLT Sihem Ben Sedrine, a CNLT member, Jalal Zoughlami, the brother of Brick, and al-Taieb No'man, a student.
After being arrested, the four were ordered to lie face down on the floor of a room in the el-Manar police station. A police officer then began kicking and beating them. Zoughlami attempted to prevent the officer from kicking Ben Salem, leading to the charges against Zoghlami for "verbal and physical abuse" of a police officer. Afterwards, when Ben Salem asked to be brought to a hospital, he was instead taken in an unmarked car and left in a deserted, wooded area some twenty kilometres outside of Tunis. He was later taken to a hospital by passers-by. Brick’s brother Zoughlami was sentenced to a jail term of three months on 3 May for "verbally and physically abusing" the security official responsible for the beating of Ben Salem.
Due to the international pressure, the Tunisian authorities dropped all charges against Brick and returned his passport to him. He was subsequently allowed to fly to Paris. However, in statements made to the media, he vowed to continue his hunger strike until his brother Zoughlami was freed from prison. On 6 May, Tunisian officials prevented Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent defence lawyer, from departing on a scheduled Paris flight to visit Ben Brik.
On 11 May, Brick was prevented from boarding his Air Algérie flight from Paris to Algeria. Robert Ménard, RSF's secretary-general, called on the minister to give an explanation for the decision, which in effect constituted a denial of entry into Algeria for Taoufik Ben Brick. He also went on to say, "the organisation is surprised by this incident. Ben Brick, a Tunisina citizen, does not need a visa to enter Algeria. His passport is valid and he possessed an airplane ticket with reservations. In another surprise decision by the Tunisian authorities, on 15 May, all charges against Brick’s brother Zoughlami were dropped and he was released from prison.
Brick finally returned to Tunisian on 7 September and in order to mark his return many of the leaders of the Tunisian opposition and local organisations for the defence of human rights met at the offices of the publishing company, Aloès, where Taoufik Ben Brik began his hunger strike in April.
In perhaps the final throw of the government’s dice in the case of Ben Brick, in November, Brick was harassed at the Tunis airport. According to RSF, on 22 November, Brick had a number of books confiscated. The journalist had arrived in Tunisia with Hélène Flautre, a member of the European Parliament from the Green Group – ALE (Free European Alliance) and vice president of the Maghreb delegation to the European Parliament. Both of them were detained by the authorities for more than two hours. During their detention, their luggage was searched and several dozen books that were written by Brick were confiscated, including 55 copies of "Le Rire de la baleine" ("The Laugh of the Whale"), which relates the story of the journalist’s hunger strike. Responding to the confiscation, Brick said, "Why am I allowed to enter, but not my books".
Regarding press freedom in general, although Tunisia was congratulated by Abid Hussain, the special rapporteur on the issue, for some advances made in press freedom, the emphasis on censorship continues in Tunisian culture. Furthermore, the desire to retaliate against a number of individuals and media organisations in the Brick case was also a disturbing feature of the government’s behaviour. Aside from the after effects of this case, the apparent censorship of the Jeune Afrique- L'Intelligent, retaliation against the family of Noureddine Aouididi and the detention of French journalist Daniel Mermet all point to a government which is loath to relinquish its traditional controls on all levels of society
On 23 January, the French journalist Daniel Mermet of France Inter was detained at the Tunisian airport while he was returning to France. Customs officers searched him and confiscated his notebooks, notes, cassettes and, in particular, his address book, which contained the addresses of the people he spoke to in Tunisia. Elsewhere, on 8 April, three individuals associated with a Tunisian non-governmental organization, the Rassemblement pour une Alternative internationale de Dévelopment (RAID), and the proprietor of a copy shop were detained by the police. Fathi Chamki, Mohamned Chourabi, and Ihab al-Hani were accused of having in their possession documents and reports of the RAID and the CNLT. The three face various charges, including belonging to an illegal organization, spreading false information, and appealing to citizens to violate the law.
In another worrying development, on 31 May, IPI protested the apparent readiness of the authorities to extend retribution to the family members of Tunisian journalists who live abroad. On 2 May, the Tunisian journalist, Noureddine Aouididi, former editor-in-chief of the Al-Akhbar newspaper, commenced a hunger strike in protest at the cruel and unnecessary treatment of family members in Tunisia.
According to IPI’s sources, Aouididi had gone on hunger strike in order to protest the failure of the government to release his sister, Radhia Aouididi, from imprisonment and to allow her a passport so that she could join her husband in France. He is also seeking passports for other members of his family who have suffered mistreatment at the hands of the government.
Resident in the United Kingdom since 1994, Aouididi fled Tunisia to escape the government’s anger at articles critical of the deterioration of the human rights situation in Tunisia. In 1997, he was granted asylum in the UK. Four years after his exile in the UK, he was sentenced by the Tunisian courts, in absentia, to life imprisonment and five year’s administrative control.
Since his flight from Tunisia, the family of Aouididi have been punished for his articles. His father has been maltreated by the Tunisian police and his brother tortured and imprisoned for five and a half months. In November 1996, his sister Radhia was arrested and sentenced in 1998 to three and a half years in prison and five years of administrative control.
Concerning distribution of foreign newspapers, RSF protested the delays in the distribution of the French weekly Jeune Afrique – L'Intelligent, in Tunisia. According to information sources in Tunisia, since April, readers of the weekly have noticed that several issues have been distributed almost a full week later. In its 3 July issue, the newspaper's management concluded that it had been penalised because it had published an article stating that " Tunisia can – and must – move more quickly towards democracy, and better respect human rights and liberties".
On 23 October, the most recent issue of the weekly Jeune Afrique- L'Intelligent was blocked at the Tunis airport. The authorities have not offered any explanation for the delay. The double issue included a long article about historian and human rights defender Mohamed Talbi titled, "The Tunisian Sakharov".
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