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IFEX-TMG calls for an end to intimidation, attacks on Tunisian journalists ahead of October elections

(TMG/IFEX) - 22 July 2009 - The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition now counting 20 member organisations of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), is deeply concerned that repeated calls on Tunisian authorities to end the cycle of repression of human rights defenders and journalists remain unheeded three months before presidential and parliamentary elections in October. TMG members have been conducting fact-finding missions and monitoring free expression in Tunisia since 2005.

One of the latest victims of this relentless cycle of repression was Khadija Arfaoui, an academic and blogger. On 4 July, she was sentenced in absentia by a minor court in Tunis to eight months in prison for "maliciously publishing false news likely to disrupt public order." The case stems from a message about the kidnapping of children in Tunisia, which Arfaoui, 69, posted on her private Facebook page.

Arfaoui, who is also a member of the board of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development - one of the few remaining independent groups in the country, has not yet been imprisoned. Her lawyers said they would appeal the harsh court ruling, which was based on Article 49 of the Press Law. "This court decision is shocking. It was issued after a mock trial and aimed mainly at intimidating Tunisians, whose right to a fair trial has never been so abused," former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui told a TMG representative.

Yahyaoui himself lost his job and became one of the most harassed human rights defenders in Tunisia after he sent a letter to President Ben Ali in 2001 in which he urged him to use his prerogatives to protect the declining independence of the judiciary. "Even ordinary judicial cases are handled today in a way that makes Tunisian courts under the French colonial rule look better," he said.

Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956 and became a republic on 25 July 1957. Its constitution adopted in June 1959 guarantees basic rights, including the right to freedom of expression and association and freedom of the press.

Multiple visits to Tunisia by members of the TMG since 2005 have documented that the rights to freedom of expression, press freedom and freedom of association are increasingly abused.

Journalists continue to be harassed and sentenced to jail or denied the right to have a passport for carrying out their jobs. Slim Boukhdhir has been waiting for years to have a passport and other critical journalists like Sihem Bensedrine, Rachid Khechana and Mohamed Hamrouni have been waiting for months to have their passports renewed.

In January, plainclothes police surrounded and raided the offices of the Kalima satellite radio station and detained one of its journalists. Kalima's editor, Sihem Bensedrine, is currently facing charges that could send her to prison for five years. The building housing Kalima's offices, as well as those of IFEX member the Observatory for Press, Publishing, and Creative Freedom (OLPEC) and the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), remains sealed, and Kalima journalists face ongoing harassment. See the TMG joint action on Kalima at:

Opposition papers "Al Mawkif", "Mouatinoun" and "Attarik El Jedid", are under tight siege and their distribution is often disrupted.

Reporter Fahem Boukaddous remains in hiding since July 2008 after facing reprisals for covering protests against unemployment, corruption and cronyism in the south of the country for the Italy-based satellite television station Al-Hiwar Ettounsi. He was sentenced in absentia in December 2008 to six years in prison for "belonging to a criminal association" and spreading materials "likely to harm public order." In February, an appeals court in Gafsa upheld the sentence, despite the fact that he was covering the protests, not involved in organising them. Harsh prison sentences were also handed down to scores of labour activists involved in peaceful demonstrations.

TMG members are concerned about attacks on rights defenders, journalists and their families. On 2 July of this year, unidentified individuals broke into a small grocery store in Gafsa owned by Afaf Bennacer, the wife of Boukaddous. Bennacer and her lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, whose office in Tunis has been ransacked more than once over the past years, also by unidentified individuals, said the political police were behind the break-in.

The latest break-in of this kind occurred on 30 June. Not unexpectedly, it targeted the offices in Tunis of three prominent human rights lawyers involved in defending Boukaddous. Ayachi Hammami told a TMG representative that he and his colleagues Mohamed Abbou and Abderraouf Ayadi had no doubt that the political police were behind this recent break-in and theft. Lawyers have also been assaulted by police. In 2007, the office of Hammami was set on fire.

The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) has been under severe threat for the past months. On 14 July, Tunisian dailies published a statement attributed to pro-government journalists announcing the eviction of the democratically elected board of the SNJT and formation of a "committee to prepare a special congress." The following day, the International Federation of Journalists underscored the need for a process "in strict accordance with the constitution" and that "will enable all members of the Tunisian syndicate to freely express their views and to participate in the congress."

The crisis currently crippling the SNJT erupted on 4 May when its president, Neji Bghouri, was interrupted at a press conference by pro-government journalists and prevented, amid intimidation and insults, from presenting the conclusions of a report on the country's declining press freedom record. Earlier this year, Bghouri came under attack for publicly declaring that the SNJT should not back any presidential candidate in the October presidential election.

TMG members wrote to President Ben Ali in May to protest the pressure exerted on hundreds of journalists to sign a government-backed petition calling for the replacement of the SNJT leadership and to note that his government used similar tactics to dissolve the executive board of the Association of Tunisian Judges (TAM) in 2005, and tried but failed to do so with the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH). See the TMG joint action on this case here:

"We strongly condemn the continuous and shameful assaults on freedom of expression and urge President 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. "The failure to do so would simply reflect a determination to keep using repression and intimidation as methods of governing and denying Tunisians the right to free speech, and consequently the right to free and fair elections."

The cycle of repression continues to intensify hand in hand with smear campaigns against human rights defenders, opposition figures, critical journalists and their relatives, who are often portrayed by government-backed newspapers and websites or in fabricated videocassettes or DVDs as "sexual perverts," "prostitutes," and "traitors on the payroll of foreign governments or groups." Many of those constantly targeted, including journalists Sihem Bensedrine and Neziha Rejiba and lawyers Radhia Nasraoui, Mohamed Abbou and Abderraouf Ayadi, issued a public statement earlier this month accusing the ministry of the interior of being behind these smear campaigns. They said they would not hesitate to use international law to file law suits against those behind the campaigns in countries where the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed.

One of the ugliest smear campaigns was recently launched against Abbou and his wife. It prompted protests and indignation among his colleagues and human rights defenders. "These shocking insults and attempts to tarnish people's reputations reflect the unfathomable moral degradation of their authors," said the Tunis chapter of the Bar Association. Abbou filed a complaint in July against the daily "Al Hadath" for defamation and the state-run Tunisian Agency for External Communication for backing defamation with public advertisements in newspapers, like "Al Hadath", and websites specialised in insulting the government's critics. TMG members claim that the attacks on women activists and journalists bring shame upon a government that professes to be at the forefront in promoting women's rights in the region.

The members of the TMG are:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Egypt
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Canada
Cartoonists Rights Network International, USA
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists, Belgium
International Federation of Library Association and Institutions, Netherlands
International PEN - Writers in Prison Committee, UK
International Press Institute, Austria
International Publishers' Association, Switzerland
Journaliste en Danger, Democratic Republic of Congo
Maharat Foundation, Lebanon
Media Institute of Southern Africa, Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, France
World Press Freedom Committee, USA
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, UK

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

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