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CAPSULE REPORT: CPJ urges president to improve press freedom record on 53rd anniversary of country's independence

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 19 March 2009 CPJ letter to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali:

CPJ presses Tunisia on poor press freedom record

March 19, 2009

His Excellency Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
President of the Republic of Tunisia
Presidential Palace
Carthage, Tunis
Via facsimile: +216-71-744-721
Dear Mr. President,

The Committee to Protect Journalists urges you on the eve of the 53rd anniversary of Tunisia's independence from France to end an ongoing cycle of repression of critical journalists and media outlets. We ask that you abide by the commitment you have made repeatedly since coming to power in 1987 to promote freedom of expression. The last time you reiterated this commitment was in November 2008 at a rally in Tunis marking the 21st anniversary of your ascent to power.

In spite of this perfunctory pledge and the unsubstantiated claim made by your government in November - in response to a CPJ special report entitled "The Smiling Oppressor" - that the Tunisian media landscape was "liberal and pluralistic," our research shows that precisely the opposite is true; acts of reprisal against critical journalism are routine, systematic, and continue unabated. The failure to protect freedom of expression is all the more disheartening because Tunisia was among the first countries in the region to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to do so without reservations - in 1968 and 1969, respectively.

In just the past two months, CPJ has documented the following transgressions by Tunisian authorities, which thoroughly belie every statement made by you and your government about its proclaimed commitment to increased press freedom over the past two decades:

- Police shut down the office of Radio Kalima and confiscated its equipment on January 30. A legal case has since been lodged against Sihem Ben Sedrine, managing director of Kalima and one of the country's most harassed journalists, for "broadcasting at frequencies without a legal permit," despite the fact that there is no provision in Tunisian law prohibiting radio broadcasts via the Internet. At the time, CPJ called for the immediate end of the siege of the Tunis office of Radio Kalima, which started broadcasting on January 26 via satellite and on the Internet from Italy. During that siege, a plainclothes officer threatened Omar Mestiri, managing editor of the Web magazine Kalima, with a knife. The Web site shares office space with the radio station of the same name.

- The opposition weekly Al-Tariq Al-Jadid published court proceedings against a local labor leader involved in unrest in the southern town of Gafsa in 2008, which led on January 31 to the seizure of issue 113 of the weekly, Al-Tariq Al-Jadid, a local rights groups said.

- On February 4, an appeals court in the southern town of Gafsa upheld a six-year prison sentence in absentia against Fahem Boukadous, correspondent for the satellite television station Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi for "belonging to a criminal association" and spreading materials "likely to harm public order." Boukadous' only crime, according to human rights lawyers and international observers who monitored his trial, was to report for the Tunisian television station that broadcasts from Italy about demonstrations against corruption and cronyism among government and labor officials in the south of the country. Boukadous, who is currently in hiding, was sentenced with 37 others to prison by a lower court in Gafsa in December. Other correspondents of Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi television, including Ayman Rezgui, have often been harassed and briefly detained by the police.

To read the full text of the letter, see: http://cpj.org/2009/03/cpj-presses-tunisia-on-poor-press-freedom-record.php

For further information on the Radio Kalima case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/100501

For further information on the Fahem Boukadous case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/100687

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