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Four issues of weekly seized, libel actions brought against newspaper

(RSF/IFEX) - On 18 April 2008, Reporters Without Borders called on the Tunisian authorities to put a stop to the harassment of the staff of the weekly "Al-Maoukif", the mouthpiece of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). The seizures of its latest issues and libel suits are threatening its survival. The organisation also wrote to French President Nicolas Sarkozy asking him to raise the issue of free expression during his 28-30 April visit to Tunis.

"The Tunisian government tries to protect itself from charges of censorship by simulating a political opening but 'Al-Maoukif' knows the reality," the press freedom organisationsaid. "Published by one of the few permitted opposition parties, this weekly has an uphill struggle to get distributed and is liable to be confiscated by the authorities at any time, without warning and without any reason being given."

Four issues of the weekly have been seized since 14 March without any announcement by the authorities and without the staff being told. In protest, members of the staff and PDP activists decided to distribute the latest issue on the streets of the capital. Party member Naima Hasni was jostled by plain-clothes police as she sold the newspaper to passers-by on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on 17 April.

"Al-Maoukif" editor Rachid Khechana insists on the newspaper's right to exist. "We no longer even ask the state to provide us with the financial assistance that all Tunisian newspapers get," he told Reporters Without Borders. "We survive on the sales of our newspaper and we just ask for our right to be able to distribute it without obstruction."

The newspaper said the seizures seem to have been prompted by articles about sensitive social issues such as increases in the prices of basic staples and the distribution of contaminated cooking oil.

Libel actions have been brought against Khechana and managing editor Nejib Chebbi by five companies that market cooking oil. In all, these companies are requesting 500,000 dinars (approx. 274,000 euros) in damages. If they are forced to pay, the newspaper will have to close down, Khechana said. He and Chebbi have been summoned to appear in court on 10 May.

In its letter to the French president, Reporters Without Borders also asked him to raise the problems of press freedom in Egypt when he receives Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Elysée Palace on 20 April.

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