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Five years past WSIS, online activity even more censored, critics silenced

(IFEX-TMG) - The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 20 IFEX members, is deeply concerned that five years after hosting the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Tunisia remains one of the most repressive countries for independent journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. Access to the Internet is heavily censored, independent websites are blocked or hacked, and emails and phone calls are intercepted.

Tunisia hosted the UN-organised WSIS on 16-18 November 2005 on the premise that free expression would improve in the country. Instead, the siege on freedom of expression has continued to intensify.

Three journalists have been jailed in less than ten months for doing their job. Zouhaier Makhlouf, a blogger and correspondent of a news website, and Taoufik Ben Brik, a contributor to French media outlets were released earlier this year after serving respectively four and six months in prison. But an ailing journalist with acute asthma is currently serving a four-year jail sentence imposed on him in July.

On 15 November, Fahem Boukaddous, correspondent for the satellite channel "Al-Hiwar Ettunisi" (Tunisian Dialogue) ended a five-week hunger strike to protest this unfair sentence and his dire prison conditions. His wife, Afaf Bennacer, also complained of police harassment and intimidating police surveillance near the family home and business.

Boukaddous was arrested on 12 July in connection with his coverage of labour protests against unemployment and corruption in the Gafsa mining region in 2008.

"Five years ago - against the advice of many defenders of free expression - the world trusted Tunisia with a key role in the future of the internet. Boukkadous' appalling plight today reminds us all just how deeply that trust has been betrayed," said IFEX-TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera, of Index on Censorship. "We are deeply disturbed by the unabated use of Tunisian administration and courts to stifle freedom of expression and by President Ben Ali's groundless claim on 7 November that no Tunisian has ever been harassed or jailed for his or her critical opinion."

Many Tunisians often resort to hunger strikes to defend their right to freedom of expression, which they are routinely denied. In September, Nejib Chebbi, director of the opposition weekly "Al-Mawkif", went on hunger strike to protest pressure on the printer not to print an issue carrying critical stories.

IFEX-TMG members conducted a fact-finding mission to Tunisia in April and May and reported that independent journalists and judges were persecuted and applications for independent newspaper licenses or radio frequencies ignored, while scores of blogs and websites are locally blocked or even hacked.

According to human rights groups, the government authorised the launch of five private radio stations since 2003 - all of them owned by President Ben Ali's relatives or close friends. The latest ones, Radio Shems and Radio Express, were launched respectively in September and October by his daughter Cyrine Ben Ali and Mourad Gueddiche, the son of his adviser and medical doctor Mohamed Gueddiche.

Journalists have been repeatedly dragged to courts, like Mouldi Zouabi of the beleaguered Radio Kalima, or harassed like Ben Brik and Lotfi Hajji, or even prevented from leaving their homes like Slim Boukhdhir and Lotfi Hidouri. Others have had their books confiscated upon their arrival at Tunis Carthage Airport, like Hidouri and Sofiene Chourabi.

The war on freedom of expression intensified when the Chamber of Deputies, largely controlled by Ben Ali's ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally adopted in mid-June a bill aimed at reinforcing the existing arsenal of legislation used to silence and punish independent journalists and human rights advocates. Under this bill, which amends Article 61a of the Penal Code, any Tunisian who establishes "contacts with agents of a foreign power or a foreign organisation with a view to inciting them to harm the vital interests" of Tunisia and its "economic security" could be jailed up to five years.

The adoption of this bill came after a group of Tunisian human rights advocates met with EU officials and urged them not to grant Tunisia the "advanced status" requested by its government unless it brought its legislation and practices in line with international standards for human rights.

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
ARTICLE 19
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

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