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TMG protests as independence of Tunisian journalists' union usurped

(IFEX-TMG) - 16 September 2009 - The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 20 member organisations of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), expresses its support for the democratically elected Board of the Tunisian journalists' syndicate, and vehemently denounces the use of the police and judiciary to usurp the union.

The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) is fighting for its independence, having been illegally taken over by government supporters in mid-August and evicted by the police from the SNJT offices in Tunis and forced to cancel their extraordinary congress due to be held on 12 September.

Instead, the democratically elected Board members of SNJT held a press conference at the offices of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) on 12 September, where representatives of ATFD and other NGOs strongly condemned the blatant violations of the law and the right to trade unionism and the political police interference in the internal affairs of the SNJT. A representative of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), of which the SNJT is a member, was also present to support the right of Tunisian journalists to belong to an independent syndicate.

Plain clothes police imposed a siege on the offices of SNJT on 8 September and prevented SNJT president Neji Bghouri and other independent members of the Board from accessing the street leading to these offices, but failed to present a copy of a court order issued the same day which allowed for the arbitrary eviction of the democratically elected Board. Local and international human rights groups have documented the Tunisian judiciary's lack of independence, which has often been used to target critical journalists and human rights and political activists.

IFJ protested after the police siege imposed on the offices of SNJT and the assault on Bghouri on 8 September. "This is heavy-handed and violent interference in journalism. It is unacceptable and demonstrates the intolerance of a regime which puts power politics before democracy," said IFJ Secretary General Aidan White.

Things began to deteriorate on 4 May when Bghouri was interrupted at a press conference by pro-government journalists who prevented him, amid intimidation and insults, from presenting the conclusions of a report on the country's declining press freedom record. In 2008, Bghouri came under attack from pro-government journalists for publicly declaring that the SNJT should not back any presidential candidate in the October presidential election, in which President Ben Ali is running for his fifth consecutive term.

The dispute led to resignations from the SNJT board, forcing an extraordinary congress and a leadership split. The pro-government camp organised their own congress on 15 August with support from the authorities, which elected a new board.

One of the first acts of allegiance to Tunisian authorities, the government and the ruling party by pro-government journalists attending the 15 August meeting was to send a message to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for his alleged "sustained keenness. . .on further promoting the Tunisian media landscape."

"This is a simple coup orchestrated to maximise positive media coverage and support for the ruling party," said TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship. "It's shameful to see journalists so brazenly sell their honour for a politician's favour or forced to back usurpers amid intimidation and threats."

TMG members wrote to President Ben Ali in May to protest the pressure exerted on hundreds of journalists to sign a government-backed petition calling for the replacement of the SNJT leadership. See: http://www.ifex.org/tunisia/2009/05/13/ifex_tmg_calls_on_president_to/

The TMG urges the Tunisian authorities to respect their human rights obligations and not to interfere in the internal affairs of the SNJT.

The members of the TMG are:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Egypt
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International, USA
Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists, Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, The Netherlands
International PEN - Writers in Prison Committee, UK
International Press Institute, Austria
International Publishers' Association, Switzerland
Journaliste en Danger, Democratic Republic of Congo
Maharat Foundation, Lebanon
Media Institute of Southern Africa, Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, France
World Press Freedom Committee, USA
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Canada

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

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