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Smear campaign against Al-Jazeera; journalist beaten

The Tunisian government has launched a smear campaign against Qatar-based Al-Jazeera as part of its ongoing strategy to silence dissent in order to ensure a fifth term for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the upcoming October election, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). This is just one of a number of recent violations reported by IFEX members.

State-controlled media outlets have been maligning Al-Jazeera since July, when the station covered a conference in Geneva on the right of exiled Tunisian dissidents to return home and aired interviews with leading critics of Ben Ali, journalists told CPJ. Earlier, the Tunisian state had reacted to Al-Jazeera's critical coverage by closing its embassy in Qatar for months in 2006 and refusing accreditation to Al-Jazeera's Tunis correspondent Lotfi Hajji.

The Tunisian state has created a culture of fear, attempting to control Al-Jazeera "as if it were a beleaguered Tunisian media outlet," a local journalist told CPJ.

Al-Jazeera correspondents told CPJ that Tunisians they contacted for stories either were not available to speak or simply declined to give their views.

However, Hamma Hammami, the former editor of the banned newspaper "Alternatives" and spokesman of the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers was willing to talk to Al-Jazeera and criticised the state's human rights record while in Paris. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), after returning to Tunisia, he was beaten by police. His wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer and human rights activist, told RSF that she found Hammami at the airport with "his mouth covered with blood, his glasses broken, and bruises on his face, surrounded by about 20 policemen who were continuing to hit him."

"Kull En-nass", a private weekly close to the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, has insulted the Qatari ruling family, which established Al-Jazeera, claiming that its patrons and journalists "are living in an underworld of shamelessness, prostitution and sex" and "bowing to the influence" of the United States and Israel, says CPJ.

Press freedom in Tunisia is heavily restricted and independent journalists are relentlessly harassed. As such, CPJ is honouring Naziha Réjiba with its 2009 International Press Freedom Award. She is one of Tunisia's most critical journalists and editor of the independent online news journal "Kalima," which is blocked in Tunisia.

Réjiba, also known as Um Ziad, has been intimidated and harassed since November 1987, when Ben Ali came to power in a coup. Her home and phones lines are monitored; she has been called in for questioning repeatedly. Réjiba co-founded Kalima in 2000 with prominent journalist Sihem Bensedrine, who has also been under government surveillance. A year later, the two journalists founded the press freedom group Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse, de L'Edition et de la Création (OLPEC). Both "Kalima" and OLPEC are banned in Tunisia.

State forces continue to intimidate journalists in an attempt to control the elections later this month. According to OLPEC, Nejiba Hamrouni, treasurer of the democratically elected board of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) was recently interrogated for the third time in one week by state agents over SNJT's management of its budget. The state took over the syndicate in August and put in place a pro-government board, reports OLPEC. Neji Bgouri, president of the SNJT, has been also interrogated.

Hamrouni and Bghouri attended the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) regional meeting in Amman this week, where IFJ members supported "calls for repeal of laws that target journalists, action on rights of women and more protection for independent media."

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