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Authorities step up campaign against critics ahead of elections

As the Tunisian government prepares for October's presidential elections, authorities are employing both old and new tactics in an all-out intimidation campaign against journalists and rights defenders, say members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) and other IFEX members.

The latest wave of repression includes lawsuits, police surveillance, the withholding of passports, politically motivated break-ins, and an attempt to take over of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT).

TMG, a coalition which has grown to 20 IFEX members, released a joint action ahead of the anniversary of the founding of Tunisia, which became a republic on 25 July 1957.

A recent victim of the crackdown is Khadija Arfaoui, a 69-year-old academic and blogger. The Observatory for the Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC) reported that on 4 July, Arfaoui was sentenced in absentia to eight months in prison for "maliciously publishing false news likely to disrupt public order." She published news about widespread rumours in Tunisia that children are being kidnapped for organ transplants on her private Facebook page.
Condemning Arfaoui's harsh sentence, former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui told TMG, "Even ordinary judicial cases are handled today in a way that makes Tunisian courts under the French colonial rule look better." Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956.

"We strongly condemn the continuous and shameful assaults on freedom of expression and urge President (Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali to immediately end the use of the judiciary to settle scores with his critics," said TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship.

Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist for the Italy-based satellite television station Al-Hiwar Ettounsi, marked one year in hiding this month. He was sentenced in absentia in December 2008 to six years in prison after he reported on protests in the southern city of Gafsa against unemployment, corruption and cronyism.

The families of journalists and rights defenders are also under threat, say TMG members. On 2 July, the store owned by Afaf Bennacer, the wife of Boukaddous, was robbed. Her lawyer, Radhia Nasraoui, whose office in Tunis has been ransacked repeatedly, said the political police were behind the break-in. In addition, on 30 June, the office of three human rights lawyers were ransacked by individuals believed to be members of the political police.

Pro-government media are also part of the campaign to muzzle dissenting voices. On 14 July, Tunisian dailies published a statement attributed to pro-government journalists announcing the eviction of the democratically elected board of the SNJT. The TMG adds that in May, journalists reported that they were being forced to sign a petition expressing no confidence in the current leadership if they wanted to keep their jobs. SNJT's elected president, Neji Bghouri, has come under attack for reporting on the country's deteriorating press freedom situation and has publicly stated that the SNJT should not align itself to any presidential candidate.

Pro-government newspapers and websites also continue to slander critical journalists, NGO workers and opposition supporters - as well as their families - by referring to them as "sexual perverts," "prostitutes," and "traitors on the payroll of foreign governments." Earlier this month, OLPEC secretary general Sihem Bensedrine, journalist and OLPEC vice president Neziha Rejiba and lawyers Radhia Nasraoui, Mohamed Abbou and Abderraouf Ayadi, issued a public statement accusing the ministry of the interior of propagating the lies being spread against them.

Meanwhile, the TMG reports, some critical journalists and family members are continuing to wait months and, in the case of journalist Slim Boukhdhir, years to receive or renew passports. The distribution of opposition papers, "Al Mawkif", "Mouatinoun" and "Attarik El Jedid", continues to be disrupted. According to OLPEC, Radio Kalima's offices remain sealed and its reporters, including Mouldi Zwabi, continue to be harassed by security agents who follow him, eavesdrop on his interviews and subject his friends to frequent questioning about their interactions with him.

Also this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has written to President Ben Ali in order to condemn attacks against journalists and government critics. "It is inconceivable that free and fair elections can take place in an environment in which independent media are harassed and silenced," the letter lambasted.

Since its formation in 2005, TMG members have visited Tunisia on five missions to document rights violations. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) joined the TMG last month.

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