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Beneath a veneer of benevolence, Tunisia silences its critics with a vengeance, says a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Based on a mission to Tunisia this summer, the report "found journalists subject to routine imprisonment, assault, harassment and censorship."

The report, "The Smiling Oppressor," concludes that "Tunisia promotes itself as a progressive nation that protects human rights, but... it aggressively silences journalists and others who challenge the policies of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali."

Such was the case with journalist Slim Boukhdhir. He was jailed last year on trumped up charges, which CPJ says were in reality a result of his reporting about corruption by the President's family. Although he was recently released from prison, Boukhdhir faces constant maltreatment and restrictions on his movement.

Other journalists and rights defenders face harassment, including Sihem Bensedrine of the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC). OLPEC is one of many rights groups reporting constant blocking of emails and phones.

CPJ says it is easy to spot the offices of OLPEC and the independent magazine "Kalima" because of "the security agents planted in plastic chairs opposite the building 24 hours a day." Founded in 2000 by Bensedrine, "Kalima" mainly operates online ( ) but has been blocked in Tunisia like dozens of other sites.

The government also tightly regulates the licensing of print and broadcast media "Licences are doled out to government allies and denied to potentially critical news outlets," says CPJ, so the press is "largely paralysed by self-censorship. The few critical voices who do write on the Internet for foreign publications and low-circulation opposition weeklies are regularly harassed and marginalised by the Tunisian authorities."

Due to a close relationship with Europe and the United Sates, Tunisia is able to blithely violate free expression: Ben Ali is "seen as a bulwark against Islamist militancy in North Africa," says CPJ. "Known across the world for its stunning beaches and tourist locales, Tunisia quietly operates a police state at home."

As a result, Tunisia, along with Morocco, is the leading Arab country in jailing journalists, says CPJ.

Download the report, available in English, French and Arabic, at:

(30 September 2008)

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