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World Press Freedom Review
Tunisia is seeking to bolster its international image by espousing a commitment to reforms, but on the ground, little change has been seen. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has said that his government upholds guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression, but this year saw an escalation of state imposed censorship intended to stifle the press and silence opposition voices.
The government uses state-controlled media as a propaganda tool to consolidate power. A fact-finding mission undertaken in April by the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 16 members of the International Federation of Expression Exchange (IFEX) reported, "While in some small-circulation newspapers there is now an unprecedented amount of balanced reporting on local issues, the larger circulation official press continues to lack balance." The mission noted that journalists they met with "…asserted that self-censorship due to government intimidation and pressure is still rampant."
Domestic radio and television stations are entirely state-controlled, as are several of the largest daily newspapers. The private press faces routine judicial and police harassment and is limited by vague and restrictive licensing procedures. Foreign publications are subjected to prior censorship and Ministry of Information censors frequently ban editions that cover taboo topics such as religion, corruption or human rights or that contain analysis of President Ben Ali or Tunisian politics.
The Dubai-based Al Maraa Al Youm magazine, the French dailies Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération and weekly Le Canard Enchaine, the London daily Al Quds Al Arabi, and a number of other publications, had editions banned from circulation in 2006. The London daily Al Hayat has been prohibited from circulation for many years.
Condemning such practices as an attempt by the government to limit the free flow of information, IPI protested the ban of the 19 September edition of Le Figaro over an opinion piece addressing the response to remarks made about Islam in the 12 September address of Pope Benedict XVI and containing commentary on the Prophet Mohammad. The Ministry of Information said the ban was ordered because the article was deemed to be harmful to Islam.
Within Tunisia, the authorities blocked publication of Akhbar al Joumhouria, and the weekly Al Maoukif, a newspaper run by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. The Ministry of the Interior continues to deny the newspaper Kalima the right to publish, despite the completion of legal formalities by the editorial team. Kalima was originally launched as an online newspaper but the authorities have blocked access to the Web site since 2000, prompting publishers to convert to a print format. Efforts to circulate the newspaper continue to be thwarted by the authorities.
Tunisia has one of the world’s worst policies of online censorship and restricts access to online information more than any other Arab country. Political and human rights Web sites are routinely blocked, as are discussion forums that provide a much needed space for analysis and debate. Authorities use sophisticated methods to limit access to Web sites, launched inside and outside the country, and often act with great speed, blocking sites just hours or days after they have been launched.
The harassment of cyber dissidents is not reserved only for those operating within Tunisia. On 19 September, the authorities expelled French journalist Léa Labaye immediately upon her arrival by plane from Paris. Labaye writes for the satirical Web site www.Bakchich.info, which frequently posts articles critical of President Ben Ali and the Tunisian regime. The Bakchich Web site is filtered in Tunisia and can only be accessed by proxy servers.
Harassment of independent journalists occurred throughout the year with even those who were released from prison seeing little relief from state interference. On 27 February, the longest serving imprisoned journalist in the Arab world, Hamadi Jebali, was released after 15 years in prison. Former editor of the now-defunct weekly Al-Fajr, the newspaper of the banned Islamist party Al-Nahda, Jebali was first jailed in 1991 for publishing an article calling for the abolition of military tribunals in Tunisia. In 1992, Jebali was sentenced by a military court, along with 279 other accused members of Al-Nahda, to 16 years in prison for "belonging to an illegal organisation" and "attempting to change the nature of the state."
Jebali was released along with 1,600 prisoners granted pardons by President Ben Ali. Among the 1,600 prisoners released were six cyber-dissidents known as the "youth of Zarzis." Abderrazak Bourguiba, Hamza Mahroug, Abdel Ghafar Guiza, Ridha Belhaj Ibrahim, Omar Chelendi and Aymen Mcharek were each sentenced to 19 years and three months in prison in 2004 for "forming a gang with the objective of planning bombings and theft."
Both Jebali and the six cyber-dissidents continued to face harassment and were repeatedly denied work. State persecution of Jebali was particularly harsh. Soon after his release, plainclothes police were posted in front of his home in Sousse. Police follow Jebali during all his activities, harassing him, his friends and his family. In June, a magistrate charged Jebali and his wife with "attempting to bribe a civil servant" while Jebali was still in prison. In November, security forces showed up at the wedding of Jebali’s daughter in an effort to disturb the family gathering.
Jebali’s former al-Fajr colleague, Abdallah Zouari, continues to be the target of arbitrary administrative sanctions and police harassment. Arrested at the same time as Jebali, Zouari, upon his release from prison in 2002, was banished to a remote part of the country. He is forced to live in Hassi Jerbi in Medenine province, over 500 km from his family home in Tunis. The security forces also prevent him from earning a living or from using public Internet cafes.
The presidential pardons issued in February were not extended to writer and human rights lawyer, Mohammad Abbou, demonstrating that President Ben Ali remains committed to muzzling voices of dissent and to keeping his critics behind bars.
Abbou was arrested on 1 March 2005 for posting articles critical of the president. He was charged 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" and was later sentenced to three years and six months in prison. Abbou has been jailed under harsh conditions in El Kef prison where guards have beaten him and prison administration have incited other prisoners to harass him, according to reports from his family. Abbou began a month-long hunger strike on 11 March to protest his treatment.
Authorities intervened on a number of occasions this year to prevent civil society representatives from holding peaceful demonstrations outside the prison to call for Abbou’s release, at times attacking protestors. Abbou’s wife Samia and their two young children have been repeatedly subjected to harsh intimidation. Police officers threaten and insult Samia and the lawyers who accompany her on weekly visits to her husband, sometimes denying her access to the prison or cutting her visits short. On three occasions in early May, an agent of the political police gained access to the balcony of the Abbou family home in the early hours of the morning, spreading panic among the family. On other occasions, police have surrounded the house, denying entry to Abbou’s friends and lawyers. On 8 December, Samia and her lawyers were beaten by a group of 30 youths who awaited their arrival outside El Kef prison. Police watched and filmed the attack without intervening.
Tunisian authorities employ a crude assortment of damaging strategies to punish dissidents. A smear campaign launched against Naziha Rejiba, editor-in-chief of the banned online news magazine Kalima, was evidence of the high price journalists pay for doing their jobs. Rejiba, who is also the vice president of the Observatory for the Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC), received warnings in December 2005 from a source close to the government that the authorities were angered by articles she had written criticising the excesses of those in power and corruption among the political elite. The source told Rejiba that the authorities were planning reprisals against her and her family.
The warnings proved to be accurate on 7 March when Rejiba’s husband, Mohamed Taieb Jallali, a former parliamentarian, and member of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) received a phone call and email message warning that a fabricated pornographic video showing his image would be publicly released. On the same day, civil police officers surrounded Jallali’s office and began to monitor his activities. His telephone was tapped during the same period. On 13 March, a package was sent by courier to Rejiba and Jallali’s home containing a copy of the video and a warning that it could be released at any time. These vile methods of intimidation were regularly employed by the state authorities in the 1990s in an effort to tarnish the reputation of critical voices. In recent years, such smear campaigns have been launched anew with several journalists being targeted.
The authorities harassed Lofti Hajji, president of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT), again this year. Hajji has been a repeat target of state intimidation tactics. On 3 June, he was confronted by a large group of plainclothes police officers who forced Hajji into a car and drove him to a police station in Bizerte, 60 kilometres northeast of Tunis. A correspondent for the Al Jazeera satellite channel, Hajji had posted a story on the station’s Web site on the previous day quoting a statement by a local human rights group about the alleged torture of a prisoner in a Tunisian jail and the alleged desecration of the Koran by a prison guard. Police accused Hajji of "spreading false information likely to disturb the public order." It was the second time in as many months that Hajji had been detained and interrogated by the police. In May, security forces accused him of holding a secret meeting at his home.
Anger over the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite station’s coverage of Tunisia prompted an extreme move from authorities in October. The government suspended diplomatic ties with the Gulf nation and closed its Qatar embassy after Al Jazeera aired two interviews with opposition figure Moncef Marzouki, during which Marzouki criticized the government’s repression of freedom and called for peaceful protest.
Endeavouring to limit all critical discussion of state policy in the domestic media, the Tunisian government is equally closed to analysis from abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on 25 October accusing Al Jazeera of "conducting a hostile campaign intended to harm Tunisia" and of "opening the doors to insurrection and revolt." The statement said the Qatari government was being held directly responsible for the activities of media operating within that country.
Some state newspapers supported the state’s criticism of Al Jazeera by publishing articles voicing condemnation of the station. Al Hadath, Al Shouroq, Al Sabah and Le Temps accused Al Jazeera of being "a dark universal extremist organisation," and "a swamp of hatred and incitement."
The authorities initiated legal action against Marzouki, one of Tunisia’s leading human rights activists, charging him with "inciting citizens to breach the law of the nation," an offence punishable by up to three years in prison. Marzouki returned to Tunisia in early October after five years of self-imposed exile in France. He is the victim of constant harassment by state authorities. Marzouki has been repeatedly threatened and attacked by plainclothes police. The security forces surround his home in Sousse and closely monitor his activities. The state’s intimidation tactics are so severe that Marzouki has been forced to live under virtual house arrest.
Meddi Adlène, an Algerian journalist for the daily Al Watan, was confronted with harsh government interference when he travelled to Tunisia in November to interview Marzouki. Adlène was questioned, searched and followed by intelligence agents for the duration of his stay.
Freelance journalist, Mohamed Fourati, became the target of judicial harassment again this year. On 1 December, Fourati was summoned to appear before a court of appeals in the southern city of Gafsa for allegedly belonging to an unauthorised group. Like many journalists in Tunisia, Fourati has repeatedly faced government interference in his work. This was the fifth time Fourati has been summoned by a court since 2003.
The repressive methods of intimidation employed by the state against Tunisian journalists, are also widely applied to opposition voices advocating political and social change. Political parties, human rights groups and civil society representatives are aggressively harassed and freedom of assembly is severely restricted. The Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT), the National Council of Freedoms in Tunisia (CNLT), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD), the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedom (FDLT), the Tunis Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, the International Association to Support Political Prisoners, the League for Free Writers have been arbitrarily denied the right to function. Meetings organised on private property are banned by police and members of these groups face aggressive harassment. They are routinely summoned to appear before the courts, are threatened and insulted by police and are subjected to random searches by security forces who frequently confront members at their homes and work places.
The CNLT and the LTDH, in particular, have faced relentless police and judicial interference. An escalation of this harassment occurred in early November when a force of 60 police officers were deployed outside the CNLT office in Tunis. Police refused to allow families of political prisoners from entering the building, arresting some and forcing them to sign documents promising that they would not return. CNLT representatives reported that, up to year’s end, their mail was regularly intercepted, their Internet connection was cut and their telephone and fax lines were rerouted to an unknown destination.
Local and international human rights groups have expressed fear that the widening circle of repression and injustice will further undermine the stability and future of a country, which has been regarded by many outside Tunisia as one of the most qualified Arab countries to become a democracy.
*IPI gratefully acknowledges the Observatory for the Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC) and the IFEX-Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) for information contributed to this report.
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