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Ben Ali gone, struggle for free expression lives on

French photographer Lucas Dolega (third from right) is seen on assignment in 2008. He died from head injuries suffered while covering street protests in Tunis
French photographer Lucas Dolega (third from right) is seen on assignment in 2008. He died from head injuries suffered while covering street protests in Tunis

Reuters/Charles Platiau

The departure of Tunisian despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - which led to the release of jailed bloggers, activists and journalists, including Fahem Boukadous - is both cause for celebration and an opportunity for more free expression reform, say members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG) and other IFEX members.

The Ben Ali regime ran a 23-year-long campaign against the independent press, from denying them registration and seizing publications to outright physical assault and imprisonment.

So with his fall came the release of all jailed Tunisian journalists and bloggers, report IFEX-TMG and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Bloggers Azyz Amamy and Slim Amamou, arrested on 7 January, were released on 13 January shortly after Ben Ali made his final speech to the nation - his last ditch attempt to stay in power. Similarly, websites that had been blocked in Tunisia for years suddenly became accessible.

Then Nizar Ben Hasan, a correspondent for Radio Kalima detained by security forces on 11 January in the coastal town of Chebba while covering street protests, was freed on 14 January.

And just today, Boukadous, a correspondent for the satellite television station Al-Hiwar al-Tunisi and a contributor to the news website Al-Badeel, was freed. He was jailed on a four-year term in July after an appeals court upheld a conviction for his coverage of 2008 labour protests in the Gafsa mining region.

"My feelings of joy are indescribable. Despite repression and life in prison and underground over the past years, I never stopped believing that Tunisian people would finally turn a new page of democratic rule," Boukadous told IFEX-TMG.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports that Lucas Mebrouk Dolega, a French photographer working for the European Press Photo Agency (EPA), died in Tunis from a head injury he sustained when police - apparently deliberately - fired a tear gas grenade at him on 14 January. According to RSF, he is the first foreign journalist to be killed in Tunisia.

Official reports say at least 78 people died in unrest nationwide, but rights groups put the toll far higher, including targeted killings of demonstrators.

According to CPJ, the most significant issue for journalists now is insecurity in the streets. "The gangs do not differentiate between journalists and others. We also cannot work at night, due to the curfew," Soufiane Chourabi, a reporter for the weekly "Al-Tariq al-Jadid", told CPJ.

Since Ben Ali's fall, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi - a firm ally of Ben Ali - announced a national unity government that included an unprecedented handful of opposition members. But key ministries are still in the hands of ruling party members, including interim President Fouad Mebazaa.

IFEX-TMG believes that its long-running campaign for free expression rights will take on even greater significance in the run up to the vote to replace Ben Ali - reportedly to be held in about six months - and beyond.

Immediately, IFEX-TMG is calling on the Tunisian authorities to open up the media registration process to all, and investigate attacks on journalists, lawyers and civil rights activists, prosecuting the perpetrators.

In particular, IFEX-TMG is supporting independent lawyers and judges who are challenging the politicised judiciary - Ben Ali's "principal weapon against independent journalists - especially if the courts have any say in future disputes over the election process," said IFEX-TMG.

"IFEX-TMG recognises that just as the work of free expression defenders did not end with the conclusion of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's rule, it will not end with the election of a candidate to replace him," said IFEX-TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera. "Many of the restrictive practices at play in Tunisia are framed by established legislation or administrative rules. Tunisian rights advocates will still have to campaign hard to see the laws changed and rules liberalised over the year to come."

For more on the evolving situation, see regular updates posted on IFEX-TMG's Facebook page and follow IFEX-TMG on Twitter @TunisiaMonitor.

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