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On International Women's Day, 24 IFEX members appeal to the UN to raise concerns about the ongoing violations of women's rights

(IFEX-TMG) - To mark the occasion of 8 March 2010, International Women's Day, members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), and members of the IFEX Gender Working Group appeal to the UN to raise concerns about the on-going violations of women's rights in Tunisia:

Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais des Nations
1211 Genève 10
8 March 2010

Dear Ms. Navanethem Pillay,

To mark the occasion of 8 March 2010, International Women's Day, members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 20 members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), and members of the IFEX Gender Working Group, wish to draw your attention to the slander and abuse faced by women journalists and activists in Tunisia. While Tunisia has a long history of promoting women's rights since they were enshrined in the 1956 Personal Status Code and later in the 1959 Constitution, during the reign of President Habib Bourguiba, they have not been fully protected by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who seized power in a bloodless coup in November 1987.

We are concerned by the on-going violations of women's rights, as highlighted by the following examples. Since December 2008, pro-government newspapers and websites have increasingly targeted well-known critical journalists, human rights defenders and their relatives with ongoing defamation and insult campaigns, which are particularly degrading to women. The smear campaigns include the portrayal of women in government-backed newspapers and websites as "sexual perverts," "prostitutes," and "traitors on the payroll of foreign governments or groups." Slanderous articles are published, often on a daily basis, targeting particular women. The government has also orchestrated the distribution of fabricated videocassettes and DVDs that aim to humiliate these women and their families.

The women targeted in the pro-government media include journalist Sihem Bensedrine and Naziha Réjiba (also known as Um Ziad) of IFEX member Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse, de L'Edition et de la Création (OLPEC). Bensedrine is routinely referred to in the government media as a "prostitute" who has collected over a million Euros from donors for personal use. Since early 2009, she has been beaten and searched several times when crossing the border into Tunisia, and was tortured in prison in 2000 and 2001. Réjiba has been targeted with attacks for over twenty years, since she began publishing critical articles about Ben Ali. The two women also run the independent online news journal "Kalima," which is blocked in Tunisia. Their homes and phone lines are monitored and they are constantly followed by plainclothes police.

Smear tactics are part of the endless cycle of harassment, which has escalated since the election in October of President Ben Ali for a fifth term. The insults took a more sinister turn in December 2009, when these media started accusing journalists and activists of being "agents of Israel," and called for them to be publicly lynched.

Many of those constantly targeted, including Bensedrine, Réjiba and Radhia Nasraoui, who is a prominent human rights lawyer and president of the Tunisian Association for Combating Torture in Tunisia, issued a public statement in July 2009 accusing the Ministry of the Interior of being behind these smear campaigns. Legal complaints in many cases have been lodged against these media, with no results.

One of the ugliest smear campaigns was launched in June 2009 against human rights lawyer and former political prisoner Mohamed Abbou and his wife Samia, a rights defender. During Abbou's imprisonment from March 2005 to July 2007, his wife and children were harassed by police. Samia Abbou has been followed by undercover agents since her husband was detained, and has been subjected to beatings and insults. Their family home remains under regular police surveillance, even when Mohamed Abbou is travelling. Samia Abbou and rights activist Fatma Ksila were beaten by police in February 2008.

The state-run Tunisian Agency for External Communication is a party to defamation by placing public advertisements in pro-government newspapers like "Al Hadath", "Kull Ennass", "Echourouq" and "Essarih", as well as backing websites that specialise in insulting the government's critics.

Vocal women are routinely subjected to persecution designed to deter them from carrying out their work. Journalist Faten Hamdi of Radio Kalima was struck in the face by police officers when she was interviewing a female student in February 2010. Hamdi managed to get away from them, but the female interviewee was taken to the police station before being released. Hamdi was also assaulted by police in November 2008, and was threatened with imprisonment during the police siege of "Kalima" in early 2009.

Blogger Fatma Riahi (who blogs under the name Fatma Arabbica) was arrested and targeted by the police in November 2009. Her blog, like other critical blogs, has been repeatedly censored and her laptop confiscated.

Nejiba Hamrouni and Soukaina Abd Samad, two members of the board of the Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens, are regularly targeted. Abd Samad was prevented from carrying out her duties as general secretary of the union following the "coup" by government journalists that occurred in the union in August 2009. Hamrouni was put under pressure at her work place and interrogated repeatedly by authorities.

Among women lawyers, Nasraoui has been subject to travel restrictions and ongoing harassment, including having her home surrounded by police. Other women lawyers have also been mistreated, such as Imen Triki, who was physically and verbally abused by police while defending a client. Women judges, including members of the Association des Magistrats Tunisiens, who attempt to act independently from government, are tightly controlled and moved to remote places away from their families as a means of punishing them into silence.

Women who work for the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD) also face routine harassment, including its president Sana Ben Achour, who has been defamed in the media since the elections in October, when the ATFD participated in media monitoring. ATFD and OLPEC report that during the elections, women legislative candidates were very poorly represented in the state-run media – gaining less than one percent visibility in media coverage.

Academics have also been targeted. Prof. Khedija Cherif, a sociologist at the University of Tunis and a prominent advocate of women's rights, has been the victim of recent smear campaigns as well as physically and verbally harassed. Human rights activist Zakia Dhifaoui spent three months in jail after being arrested during a peaceful protest in Gafsa in July 2008. She was arbitrarily denied the right to work as a school teacher and repeatedly harassed and assaulted by the police. Ghazela M'Hamdi, a rights activist in Gafsa, has also been beaten by police more than once while exercising her right to protest peacefully.

Afef Ben Nasser is routinely harassed by police in Gafsa, who also broke into her store in 2009. Ben Nasser is the wife of journalist Fahem Boukaddous, currently facing a four-year prison term for reporting on protests in Gafsa. Family members of other journalists sentenced to prison have also been targeted by the police, including Azza Zarrad, wife of jailed journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who is critically ill. While lobbying for his release in Tunisia, she has been verbally assaulted by police.

Maya Jribi, secretary general of the opposition of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and activists of this political group have been often harassed or assaulted by plainclothes police. In July, Jribi was stoned and in April, she was assaulted during a peaceful demonstration against restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly. In May, Naima Hosni of PDP was beaten up by plainclothes police in Tunis while she was selling copies of the PDP weekly "Al Maoukif".

TMG members have repeatedly expressed their disappointment at the abhorrent tactics used against government critics, particularly noting that the attacks on women activists and journalists bring shame upon a government claiming to be at the forefront of promoting women's rights in the region.

We are also concerned by evidence of impunity for perpetrators of crimes against women in Tunisia, as demonstrated in the case of Khaled Ben Saïd, former Tunisian Vice-Consul in France. In 2008, a court in Strasbourg, France sentenced Ben Saïd to eight years in prison for his role in torturing a woman in prison in Tunisia in 1996. The woman, while living in exile in France, had recognised him as the former chief of police in Jendouba. Ben Saïd fled to Tunisia when the case was lodged and now works for the government. Tunisian authorities rejected the case against him as "unfounded".

We call on the United Nations to take concrete steps to address these issues with the Tunisian authorities, including raising these violations during official visits and requesting missions by relevant special rapporteurs to take up the cases where the rights of women and freedom of expression to Tunisia have been violated.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Yours sincerely,

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Journaliste en danger
Maharat Foundation
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
PEN International
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
World Press Freedom Committee

Members of the IFEX Gender Working Group / Les membres du Groupe de travail de l'IFEX sur le genre / Los miembros del Grupo de Trabajo de Género de IFEX :

Center for Media Studies & Peace Building, Liberia
Center for Journalism and Public Ethics, Mexico
Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala
Cartoonists Rights Network International
International Federation of Journalists
Media Institute of Southern Africa, Namibia
Norwegian PEN
Pacific Freedom Forum

cc. Mrs. Margaret Sekaggya, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Ms. Melanne Verveer, US Ambassador at large for women's rights

Ms. Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State

Ms. Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Ms. Bebia Bouhnak Chi, Minister of Women and Family Affairs, Tunisia

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