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AUTHORITIES DOING "UTMOST" TO STIFLE DISSIDENTS, SAYS TMG

The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 18 freedom of expression organisations who belong to the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), is appealing to the Tunisian authorities and the new UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression to look into the increasing number of attacks against human rights defenders and independent journalists in Tunisia, many of them with close ties to IFEX.

TMG says that the attacks are proof that the "Tunisian authorities are doing their utmost to stifle dissidents and to curb free expression in the country."

TMG points to the case of online editor, writer and human rights defender Sihem Bensedrine, whose organisation Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC) is an IFEX member. Bensedrine has been the target of continual harassment for years -"technical" (internet surveillance, blocking of websites, etc.) and physical. Recently, Bensedrine was verbally and physically attacked by plainclothes police officers on her way to a solidarity rally for writer and activist Zakia Dhifaoui, who is currently serving an eight-month prison sentence in connection with her human rights advocacy work.

Plus, earlier this month Bensedrine's online magazine Kalima ( http://www.kalimatunisie.com ), often touted as one of the only independent news sources in Tunisia, was hacked and all its web content destroyed - just three months after the site was re-launched as a multimedia platform and archive.

Naziha Rjiba, deputy president of OLPEC and the editor of Kalima, has also come under attack. She was summoned to appear before a public prosecutor this week for "publishing unlawful allegations" for an article she wrote in the opposition weekly "Mouatinoun" that blamed the Tunisian authorities for the attack on Kalima. She wrote that the government "gave instructions to hit our website because it is a regime of pirates and highway men." The Interior Ministry banned distribution of the 22 October issue of "Mouatinoun", in which the article appeared.

This week, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia expressed alarm about the authorities' decision to jail Rjiba's husband, the human rights lawyer Mokhtar Jellali, following a road accident.

"My family has been taken hostage by the government," she told Reporters without Borders (RSF). "My husband was imprisoned although the traffic police reports and the statements of passers-by prove he is innocent."

"The purpose of the persecution of Rjiba and her family is to spread fear among journalists and civil society advocates," said blogger and lawyer Mohamed Abbou, who spent more than two years in jail for criticising President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and exposing the use of torture in Tunisian prisons. In a separate incident last week, Abbou was prevented from leaving Tunisia to attend a live broadcast of Al Jazeera in Paris.

"Dissidents like Abbou or independent journalist Slim Boukhdhir are routinely jailed on trumped up charges - excuses to silence them that appear to be legally unrelated to their work, so that the government can tell the international community that free expression is observed," TMG said in its letter to Frank La Rue, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

TMG is urging La Rue to monitor the situation and visit Tunisia. It has also called on the Tunisian authorities to abide by their international human rights obligations in light of the recent attacks.

Visit these links:
- TMG joint action: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/97922/
- TMG website: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/
- RSF on Rjiba: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29113
- CPJ on Rjiba: http://tinyurl.com/6du5at
- CPJ special report on Tunisia, "The Smiling Oppressor": http://www.cpj.org/smiling/
(29 October 2008)

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