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World Press Freedom Review
2005 World Press Freedom Review
Journalists are among the groups that have suffered the most in a country whose dismal human rights regime was brought into the international spotlight this year. As the UN sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in November amidst
harassment of delegates and attacks on journalists, long held concerns that Tunisia was an inappropriate host country for a Summit dealing with communication and freedom of expression were justified.
In the months leading up to the WSIS, a conference on the circulation of news and information on the Internet, international human rights’ groups criticised the Tunisian government for its unwillingness to loosen its tightly held grip on the national media. Invasive systems of censorship were kept firmly in place this year and the state continued to issue directives on press coverage while repressing dissent through a highly effective system of legal, financial, and psychological measures.
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali publicly declared his support for freedom of expression and press freedom on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, when he commented that both these freedoms are among the basic rights of the individual. His declaration did not translate into any improvements for the country’s dire media environment because the crackdown on dissidents, human rights defenders and journalists has continued.
To more closely monitor free expression violations, members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) founded the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of press freedom organizations, last year. A fact-finding mission carried out by the TMG in mid-January found there to be a lack of pluralism in broadcast ownership, censorship in the press and a lack of content diversity in newspapers with administrative controls used to limit the development of independent media outlets. It also found that individuals were routinely imprisoned for expressing their opinions and that security services practiced torture with impunity.
The TMG and other press freedom groups called on the Tunisian government to address these press freedom violations and to end harassment of journalists. The demands were ignored as authorities went to new lengths to silence voices of dissent. One journalist was banished to a remote part of the country in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of government policies.
Abdallah Zouari completed an 11-year prison sentence in 2002. When arrested in 1991, Zouari was a teacher and a journalist with al-Fajr, an organ of the Islamist Nahdha party. He was arrested when authorities outlawed the party and he was convicted in a mass military trial of attempting to overthrow the state. His sentence included five years of "administrative control" to follow his prison term.
Upon his release in 2002, authorities ordered him to reside in Hassi Jerbi in Medenine province, over 500 km from his home in Tunis where his wife and family live. Since moving to Hassi Jerbi, Zouari has been jailed three times and has been under constant police surveillance by plainclothes officers who linger outside his apartment or follow him when he travels by car.
On 23 January, Zouari went on hunger strike to protest the rejection of numerous requests for permission to visit his family. Later in the year, the district chief of security reportedly ordered the owners of four Internet cafés in Hassi Jerbi to deny Zouari access to email. According to an HRW report, the de facto internal banishment of an ex-prisoner is rare. The measures taken against Zouari were intent on "silencing someone who kept meticulous records of prison conditions and who made it clear that a decade behind bars had not blunted his determination to criticise government policies."
The case of Mohammad Abbou, a lawyer who was arrested on 1 March for posting an online article containing critical information, also drew international concern this year. Abbou was arrested over an article he wrote comparing torture committed against political prisoners in Tunisia to abuses carried out by U.S. soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The article was published on the Tunisnews Web site in August 2004. On 28 February, Abbou posted an article on the same site about Tunisia’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attend the WSIS meetings and commented that Sharon and Tunisian President Ben Ali were leaders from the same mould.
Abbou faced charges under both the press and penal codes for "publishing false reports inclined to disturb public order," "insult to the judiciary" and "inciting the population to break the country’s laws". On 29 April, he was sentenced to three years and six months in prison. The sentence was later upheld at a 10 June appeals court hearing that many observers deplored as being a sham trial during which neither Abbou nor his lawyers were allowed to contest the charges against him.
Abbou joined a disturbing number of Tunisian cyber-dissidents who have been put behind bars. In July, he began a hunger strike to draw attention to the "hatred and complete intolerance towards all those who dare, even if only implicitly, to expose and criticise" authorities.
In early April, journalist Hamadi Jebali also began a hunger strike from within the confines of his prison cell. The hunger strike was carried out to protest the lack of medical care and the inhumane and degrading treatment inflicted on political prisoners in Tunisia. The journalist’s health deteriorated in 2005 as the harsh conditions suffered during 14-year imprisonment began to take their toll.
Initially arrested on 31 January 1991, Jebali was sentenced the same day to one year in prison for "defamation." This followed the publication of an article written by lawyer Mohammed Nouri that called for the closure of military tribunals. On 28 August 1992, Jebali was sentenced to 16 years in prison for "belonging to an illegal organisation" and "attempting to change the nature of the state."
Hamadi was moved in May to Mahdi prison closer to his home but authorities refused to allow for his early release. By early October, his wife publicized concerns that her husband was close to death. Harsh conditions in Tunisian prisons have been a major issue in recent years as many political prisoners have died from torture or lack of medical care.
In late April, a series of campaigns against promoters of press freedom began. On 25 April, Lotfi Hajji, President of the Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate (SJT) was detained at the Tunis airport and had 15 of his books confiscated. Tunisian officials did not welcome the founding of the SJT and, despite trade union freedom being guaranteed under Article 8 of the constitution, deemed the organization illegal. Hajji was later harassed in a series of punitive actions taken by Tunisian authorities following statements issued around 3 May World Press Freedom Day in which journalists groups expressed concern for the media environment.
The SJT came under further attack in August when security officials in Tunis barred them from holding their first congress. No legal grounds for the decision to ban the events was given.
The editor of an online magazine became the victim of a malicious smear campaign in May following the publication of a report she authored for the National Council for Freedom in Tunisian (CNLT) on misinformation in the media. Several Tunisian newspapers, including As Shouruq, Al Hadath and Al Sarih, attacked Sihem Bensedrine’s personal dignity and reputation in articles allegedly published at the behest of the Tunisian government.
Editor of the daily As Shouruq, Abdel Hamid Riahi, published a comment accusing Bensedrine of selling "her conscience and her behind, and other things too, to foreigners in general and to Zionists in particular." In Tunisia "selling her back" is a coded way to describe someone who practices prostitution. Riahi was later awarded the national order of cultural
merit by President Ben Ali. Other articles referred to Bensedrine as crazy, hateful and as a diabolical creature. Bensedrine has been jailed in the past in connection with her journalistic work.
Since President Ben Ali came to power in 1987, the privately owned media have often been used to insult rights defenders, opposition figures and some independent journalists. In March, another smear campaign targeted M’Hamed Krichene, a journalist working for Qatarbased Al Jazeera television, after he wrote an opinion piece in the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi, deploring the absence of independent journalism in Tunisia.
The decision, announced on 9 September, to bar the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) from holding its annual congress sparked further international outrage against Tunisian authorities. The LTDH, the oldest human rights’ organisation in the Arab World and Africa was scheduled to begin meetings in Tunis that day. International watch groups argued that the decision to ban the congress did not auger well for the success of other civil society meetings planned in coordination with November’s UN Summit.
The World Summit on the Information Society was developed as a United Nations initiative to create guidelines for regulating Internet governance and financing mechanisms with a focus on bridging the digital divide between rich and poor. The decision, announced in 2004, to host the second phase of the WSIS meetings in Tunisia met with strong criticism as human rights groups voiced concern that the country’s harsh restrictions on freedoms of association, expression and the press made it an unsuitable location for such a significant gathering.
Those concerns were realized on the eve of the summit when several delegates, including the General Secretary of press freedom group RSF Robert Ménard, were refused entry into Tunisia.
Civil society activists who had planned a Citizen’s Summit on the Information Society were assaulted, abused and detained on 14 November when they barred from entering the Goethe Institute in Tunis to hold a preparatory meeting. The group later decided to cancel their activities in light of the difficult circumstances interrupting a long tradition of UN conferences being complemented by events organised by citizens’ groups.
In addition, on 14 November, French journalist Christophe Boltanski, correspondent for the daily Libération, was assaulted by four men near the embassy district of Tunis. The attackers blinded Boltanski with pepper spray before throwing him to the ground, punching and kicking him. One of the attackers stabbed Boltanski in the lower back during the assault.
Although Boltanski reportedly called for help in the heavily policed neighbourhood, guards standing outside the nearby Czech Embassy did not intervene. The assailants disappeared after stealing his bag containing a small amount of cash, a USB computer memory stick, a mobile phone and a return air ticket to Paris.
The attack took place a day after Libération published Boltanski’s report about police clashes with activists protesting for the release of political prisoners in Tunisia. Following the attack French station TV5 announced that they were withdrawing their two-person team from Tunis because they had been subject to close surveillance.
On 15 November a Belgian television cameraman had his camera seized by plainclothes police officers who forced themselves into the TV crew’s vehicle near the Summit site. The camera was later returned but the film was confiscated. The police stated that no pictures could be taken anywhere in Tunisia without prior officials authorisation and prevented another reporter from taking photographs. Police beat a Tunisian journalist approaching the site later that day.
A range of websites containing criticism of Tunisian authorities were available to delegates at the official WSIS venue but remained blocked and censored throughout the rest of the country. Certain segments of documents and speeches that were circulated throughout the Summit were censored in the national media.
On 29 November, more than 140 civil society organisations signed a joint letter urging UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to launch an investigation into attacks on freedom of expression and other human rights during the Summit. They also urged Annan to initiate a thorough review of the process for deciding which countries host UN summits and on their responsibilities as hosts.
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