CJFE Raises Concerns about Free Expression in Tunisia

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hon. Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs
125 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0G2 Canada
Fax: 613-992-6802

September 11, 2009

Dear Minister,

We are writing to you on behalf of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) concerning your recent trip to Tunisia and subsequent comments about improving ties with Tunisia. CJFE, which manages the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Clearing House in Toronto, is a member of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 20 member organisations of IFEX.

We understand that a delegation of Tunisian officials is coming to Canada in September. We wanted to draw your attention to our concerns and ask that you raise the issue of freedom of expression and human rights with the Tunisian government.

Tunisia's constitution, adopted in June 1959, guarantees basic rights, including the right to freedom of expression, association and of the press. However, in the five years that the TMG has been monitoring and documenting free expression in Tunisia, we have found the opposite to be true.

Multiple visits to Tunisia by the TMG since 2005 have documented that the right to freedom of expression, press freedom and freedom of association is increasingly abused. Common free expression violations include internet censorship, the closing of media outlets, harassment, threats and attacks against individual journalists (including vulgar attacks on women and activists) and the sentencing and imprisonment of journalists in relation to their work as journalists.

In fact, CJFE Board Member Bob Carty, a CBC Radio producer, experienced firsthand persecution at the hands of Tunisia plainclothes police while attending the World Summit on the Information Societies in November 2005. And this year, a delegation to Tunisia made up of Canadian MPs and Senators, concluded in their report that "In Tunisia, on the other hand, the media was tightly controlled. The delegation was concerned with the lack of press freedom there and at the restrictions placed on journalists."

Tunisia is a country of great promise - it has a tradition of promoting education, advancing the participation of women in politics, and respecting secular values. But, the heavy hand of the government in the area of freedom of expression diminishes this potential and tarnishes Tunisia's image in the world.

Full respect for free expression would enhance Tunisia's stability and democracy. And that would make Tunisia the kind of diplomatic and commercial partner that Canada wishes to embrace. We hope that the Canadian government will make it a high priority to raise these concerns about the human rights practices of the Tunisian government during this visit.

We have enclosed with this letter a more detailed report about free expression violations. And we would be happy to speak with you to about this information if you wish. To arrange a meeting, please contact Annie Game at (416) 515-9622 x.227.

Yours sincerely,

Anne Game
Executive Director

Bob Carty
CJFE Board Member

The members of the TMG are:
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Egypt
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Library Association and Institutions
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
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, France
World Press Freedom Committee, USA
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters

TMG Report on Free Expression in Tunisia

September 2009

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and other IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) members are deeply concerned that repeated calls on Tunisian authorities to end the cycle of repression of human rights defenders and journalists remain unheeded before presidential and parliamentary elections in October. The following are a number of our urgent and immediate concerns.

Independence of major Journalists Union Taken Away
Currently, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) is fighting for its independence, having been illegally taken over by government supporters this past month. One of the first acts of the new Board was to praise President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for his "sustained keenness ...on further promoting the Tunisian media landscape."

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 crisis erupted on 4 May when SNJT 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). TMG calls on president.

The TMG has documented a number of other recent cases, as follows, and as outlined in a TMG statement issued in July (TMG calls for an end to intimidation.):

Imprisonment of Journalists
On 4 July, Khadija Arfaoui, an academic and blogger 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 an IFEX 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. The judge's Facebook page was recently hacked, a routine occurrence for critics of the Tunisian regime.

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.

Denial of Passports to Journalists
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. Bensedrine is the winner of the 2004 CJFE International Press Freedom Award.

Closing of Media Outlets
In January, plainclothes police surrounded and raided the offices of the Kalima satellite radio station in January 2009 and detained one of its journalists. Bensedrine, Kalima's editor, 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 of 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 the IFEX website.

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

Attacks on Journalists and Human Rights Defenders
TMG members are concerned about attacks on rights defenders, journalists and their families. On July 2 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 June 30. Not unexpectedly, it targeted the offices in Tunis of three prominent human rights lawyers involved in defending Boukaddous. Ayachi Hammami told an IFEX 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.

Smear Campaigns
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 these 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. 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.