(IFEX-TMG) - 27 April 2010 - While members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) welcome Taoufik Ben Brik's release from prison today, the press freedom coalition condemns the charges against journalist Fahem Boukadous as a political manoeuvre whose true aim is to silence criticism of Tunisian authorities. The TMG is a group of 20 organisations who belong to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) network. Five members of the TMG are on mission in Tunisia this week.
An appeals court in the town of Gafsa today again deferred the appeal by Boukadous of a four-year sentence on charges of "belonging to a criminal association" and "harming public order". Boukadous will have to wait for a verdict until 18 May when his next appeals hearing takes place, after he suffered an asthma attack yesterday and required medical attention.
Boukadous, a journalist with Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi satellite television station, went into hiding in July 2008 after discovering that he was wanted by the Tunisian authorities on charges stemming from his coverage of demonstrations in Gafsa, a mining region in south Tunisia. He was sentenced to six years in prison in December 2008.
Boukadous emerged to challenge the sentence in November 2009 on the basis that he had been tried in absentia. A court overturned the previous ruling, but said that Boukadous would again be tried on the same charges. In January of this year, the journalist was found guilty as charged and sentenced to four years in prison, but he remains free.
"Fahem Boukadous is being punished by the state simply for doing his job and reporting on public demonstrations against unemployment and corruption," said Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship, which chairs the TMG. "The state didn't like the news so they targeted the messenger. This kind of intimidation of independent media should stop."
Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist and writer known for his sharp criticism of the Tunisian government, was released a day after completing a six-month prison sentence on charges widely believed to be falsified.
Because of his work, Ben Brik has previously endured detentions and been prevented from traveling outside of Tunisia while his family members have also been harassed on several occasions.
Ben Brik was taken into custody on 30 October 2009 for allegedly attacking a woman during a traffic incident. He was sentenced to six months in prison with no parole on 26 November on charges of "assault", "willful destruction of property" and "breach of public decency".
Press freedom groups including members of the TMG have protested, not only the appalling conditions of Ben Brik's imprisonment but also his politically motivated arrest and unfair trial. In January, as Ben Brik's health deteriorated, members of his family began a hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison. The six month sentence was upheld on appeal in February.
"The TMG welcomes the release of Ben Brik, but it is apparent that he should never have been jailed in the first place," Jayasekera said.
The TMG members on mission in Tunisia this week are ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship, the International Press Institute, Norwegian PEN, and the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN.
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Journaliste en danger
Media Institute of Southern Africa
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
World Press Freedom Committee