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Journalists at risk; pro-government press intensifies attack on critics

Intimidation and harassment of Tunisian journalists has escalated in recent weeks, reports the Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d'édition et de création (OLPEC). The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), composed of 20 IFEX members, has called on the European Parliament to raise free expression violations with the Tunisian government in upcoming discussions.

TMG members and OLPEC are particularly concerned about the failing health of imprisoned journalist Taoufik Ben Brik. Family members, under intense police surveillance, launched a hunger strike on 6 January to protest "this slow death to which he is being subjected," reports OLPEC. Ben Brik, a well-known critic of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was sentenced to six months in prison in November 2009 after a mock trial. Journalist Zouhaier Makhlouf's sentence is due to expire next week, but he cannot be released until a court hears his appeal.

Meanwhile, attacks on other journalists are relentless. Today, the TMG reports, journalist Fahem Boukaddous was sentenced to four years in prison for covering demonstrations in Gafsa against unemployment and corruption. In December, Moez Jemai, a Radio Kalima correspondent, had his identity documents stolen from him, reports OLPEC. When he tried to file a report at the police station, the police offered him money to end his work with Radio Kalima, which he refused.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and 43 other Arab human rights organisations released a joint statement on 11 January condemning smear campaigns and attacks against prominent Tunisian independent journalists and human rights activists. The joint statement condemns the pro-government Tunisian press for its attacks on dissident journalists and human rights defenders who criticise the state's repressive policies. "Containing various incitements to murder, the campaigns are preparing public opinion to disregard any potential assassinations of these activists, already branded traitors," says the statement.

Exiled Tunisian journalist Slim Bagga has received several death threats, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The most recent one arrived at his Paris home in a letter from Lebanon. "You will never escape our vengeance. Neither will your companions among the pawns of Zionism and remnants of despicable colonialism," said the letter. Bagga has been the target of government-backed smear campaigns. He believes the recent threat stems from the Tunisian government's fury over his contributions to a book published in France,"La Regente de Carthage", which details President Ben Ali's wife's corrupt influence over political and economic life in Tunisia, says CPJ.

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