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World Press Freedom Review
This year marked the 20th anniversary of Tunisian President Zein Alabideen Ben Ali’s rule. Though he has been hailed as the "president of change" by pro-government papers and is supported by many Western countries as a "bulwark against the Islamic threat," the president has a history of flouting civil liberties and human rights in his dealings with the opposition in the media as well as in the political field.
In fact, as early as January, continued repression of the right to freedom of expression in the country prompted the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) to appeal to incoming UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to remind the Tunisian government of its international obligations, emphasizing that the country’s membership in the United Nations Council of Human Rights added particular urgency to the matter. The group expressed dismay that the host of the 2005 United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) had failed to loosen its control on, and harassment of, the local media, noting that conditions may in fact have worsened since the event.
In February, Tahar Ben Hassine, head of the Italy-based satellite TV station Al-Hiwar Attounsi and editor of the Perspectives Tunisiennes website, was arrested after leaving the home of freelance journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who is under state surveillance. Police administered an alcohol test and maintained that Hassine was driving under the influence, despite his claims to the contrary. He was taken to a Tunis police station, where members of the country’s "political police" visited him, and was released by a judge without charge the following day. The incident was one of several involving Hassine’s TV station, whose employees have been attacked in the past, including an incident during which a journalist was beaten by police officers when attempting to visit the wife of an imprisoned dissident.
Later that month, Tunisian authorities blocked access to several sources of information that included commentary critical of the government. The ban affected three French publications: issues of Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur, which were not distributed to newsstands within the country, as well as the website of the daily Libération, access to which was blocked. The articles, all written by Taoufik Ben Brik, marked an end to three years of silence by the Tunisian journalist. Press freedom organisations have indicated that several other sites and publications, such as a blog published by RSF, the magazine Médias, as well as the satirical Le Canard Enchaîné, have been banned in the country.
In March, journalist Mohamed Fourati was sentenced to 14 months in prison by an appeal court in the southern city of Gafsa. The charges against Fourati were based on an online article he wrote in 2002, about fundraising efforts for the family of a political prisoner, leading to accusations that he maintained ties to an opposition group. Appellate judges twice dismissed the charges, but prosecutors appealed to a different court, resulting in a retrial and conviction.
Fourati currently lives in Qatar, where he works for the daily Al-Sharq. His wife, who still lives in Tunisia, has been refused permission to leave the country. Fourati, former Tunis-correspondent for a London-based news agency and editor of the Progressive Democratic Party newspaper, will only have to serve his sentence if he chooses to return to Tunisia.
That same month, the IFEX TMG issued "Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds", its fourth major report on freedom of expression in the country, and concluded that no progress was discernible, and that in fact, conditions continued to worsen. The report identified the harassment of journalists and dissidents, threats to the independence of the judiciary, the blocking of books and websites, and restrictions on independent organisations as growing problems since May 2006.
In June, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) called on authorities to end the house arrest of Abdallah Al-Zawary, a journalist and former deputy editor-in-chief of the Al-Fajr newspaper. Al-Zawary was arrested for his membership in the Islamic Renaissance Movement in 1991. He spent 11 years in prison, and, after his release in June 2002, was placed under house arrest for five years. He is currently under house arrest in Gergeis City, 500 km from the Tunisian capital, where his family lives; he is not permitted to move beyond 30 km from his home, and cannot use Internet cafes. Instead of ending the house arrest, the Ministry of the Interior extended Al-Zawary’s banishment for 26 months. No justification for the extension was given.
In July, an important opportunity to confront the country’s appalling human rights record was missed when Dr. Botros Botros Ghaly, chair of the National Council for Human Rights, met with Abd el Hafeez el Herqam, the Tunisian ambassador, but failed to bring up the issue. Ghaly and the ambassador met to discuss cooperation between the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt and the High Institute for Human Rights in Tunisia, in preparation for a conference in Egypt on democracy and human rights in Africa.
"When the chair of the National Council for Human Rights ignores the Tunisian government’s violations and discusses Egyptian-Tunisian cooperation, I begin to fear what is behind this cooperation, " noted HRinfo Executive Director Gamal Eid.
Kalima, an independent online newspaper that has unsuccessfully attempted to get registered in the country since 2000, was targeted by several different sources throughout the year. During a two-week period in June, as many as 30 to 60 plain-clothed police officers surrounded the premises used by Kalima, and prevented its staff from entering their offices.
It was also harrassed by way of a lawsuit filed by Tunisian lawyer Mohammed Baccar against Omar Mestiri, Kalima’s editor, for libel over a September 2006 article about the lawyer’s reinstatement to the bar after having been convicted of forgery and fraud. Mestiri, who was summoned to the state prosecution’s office for a response in late March, faced up to three years in prison. According to the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC), Mestiri’s lawyers emphasized that the article was published on the Kalima website, which is blocked in Tunisia, meaning that the article could not have been accessed from within the country. Mestiri’s lawyers also argued that Baccar failed to file the suit within the applicable statute of limitations. Also at the hearing, Mestiri refused to identify his sources, citing his right as a journalist not to reveal them.
The trial itself was repeatedly postponed at the request of the plaintiff's lawyers, even though not all of these requests were supported with any information justifying the delay. Finally, on 28 August, the lawyer withdrew his complaint, and the court suspended the case two days later.
In October, the Tunisian Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and its official newspaper, Al-Mawkef, were expelled from their premises, where the paper had been stationed for nearly 13 years. The paper’s director, Néjib Chebbi, was sued by his landlord for using his apartment as PDP headquarters, apparently at the behest of Tunisian authorities, who have also pressured other landlords to evict other branches of the same party. Maya Jribi, the party’s secretary-general, and Chebbi protested the action with a hunger strike. When Lotfi Hajji, the correspondent of the Qatar-based satellite TV news station Al-Jazeera, tried to access PDP headquarters to report on the hunger strike, plain-clothes police repeatedly manhandled him. The TMG criticized the development as a "blatant attempt to silence dissenting voices through censorship, intimidation and appalling use of judicial courts" and as an obvious violation of Tunisia’s obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Much of the remaining news coming from Tunisia involved the imprisonment of writer and human rights lawyer Mohammad Abbou. Abbou was sentenced to three and a half year in prison in connection with critical online articles, which targeted Tunisian authorities by exposing torture in the country and comparing its treatment of prisoners to conditions in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. He was charged under both the press and penal codes for "publishing false reports inclined to disturb the public order," "insult to the judiciary" and "inciting the population to break the country’s laws." His sentence was announced and upheld on appeal, in a hearing widely condemned as a "sham", with neither Abbou nor his lawyers permitted to contest the charges against him. Subsequent reports indicated that Abbou suffered harsh treatment, including beatings, and that his family members have also been harassed by security forces.
March marked the second anniversary of his imprisonment, prompting IPI to join the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and other members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) in calling for an immediate end to his continued incarceration. Later that month, a TMG delegation travelled to Tunisia and tried to meet with Abbou. However, unidentified men prevented delegation members from even entering the prison in which he was incarcerated in order to arrange such a possibility.
The men, who photographed members of the delegation, also prohibited them from taking pictures themselves. Abbou’s wife, who accompanied the group, was granted a 15-minute visit only.
In July, there was finally some welcome news, when Abbou was released from prison after over two years. No reason was given for the release, which occurred one day before the 50th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic of Tunisia. Twenty other political prisoners were also released that same day.
On the evening of his release, Abbou announced that, "as a former prisoner of conscience, I would like to thank all those in Tunisia and the rest of the world who stood by my side during the ordeal I have been through. The Tunisian authorities offered time and again to release me from prison on condition of signing a letter of apology. But I refused to do so." He added that his release was "the result of actions of resistance to oppression undertaken by Tunisians capable of saying no to a regime in violation of basic human rights," but emphasized that he "strongly denounced" violence as a response to suppression.
During the first few months after Abbou’s release from prison, several organisations reported that he had been able to speak quite freely about his experiences. However, subsequent events indicated that the optimism triggered by news of his freedom might have been premature. In mid-October, Abbou was told at Tunis-Carthage airport that he was "banned from travelling," and so was unable to travel to London for an interview in Al-Jazeera’s London studios, where he was scheduled to speak on free expression and human rights. A little over a week later, Abbou was again similarly restricted when he was prohibited from travelling to Cairo to attend the 24 October trial of Ibrahim Essa, editor-in-chief of the independent Aldostur. These restrictions were particularly troubling given that Abbou’s release from prison was never conditioned on a prohibition from leaving Tunisia.
Abbou was also invited to speak at a mid-November event in Washington, D.C., hosted by the IFEX TMG, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International-USA and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). However, he was again unable to attend the event, which was held to protest the 20th anniversary of President Ben Ali's rule, after border police refused to let him board his 10 November flight. Judge Ahmed Rahmouni, who chairs the executive board of the Association of Tunisian Judges, was also prevented from attending the event, with the Ministry of Justice failing to grant him the necessary authorization to travel to the United States.
The restrictions constituted evidence of a disturbing pattern of increasing governmental interference with various activists’ and journalists’ right to travel. For example, it also imposed a de facto travel ban on journalist and human rights advocate Kamel Labidi by arbitrarily refusing to issue him a new passport. In fact, human rights lawyer Mohamed Ennouri and journalist Selim Boukhdhir in early November went on hunger strike in Tunis to protest the violation of this basic right.
When Boukhdir in late November travelled to a police station in the suburbs of Tunis in connection with his passport application, he was arrested by the police, and subsequently prosecuted for "insulting behaviour towards an official in the exercise of his duty," "breach of accepted standards of good behaviour" and "refusal to produce his identity papers to the police." On 4 December, he was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay a 3 Euro fine by a district court, in a proceeding widely criticised as aimed at silencing the outspoken critic.
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