Dramatisk i Tunisia: Dødstrusler og angrep på ytringsfriheten

Death Threats and Attacks on Freedom of Expression Intensify in Tunisia

Norwegian PEN, WAN-IFRA, International Pen & Index on Censorship

Tunis, 28 February 2013: Death threats, physical attacks, an emergence of hate speech and accusations of official censorship of critical media have escalated the perilous situation for freedom of expression in Tunisia.

As the political crisis deepens following the assassination of outspoken left-wing political leader Chokri Belaiid, and the resignation on Tuesday of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, attacks against journalists and writers have intensified.

The undersigned members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) call on the Tunisian government to condemn such attacks, guarantee the safety of journalists, writers and media workers reporting on the on-going crisis, and implement legislation available to them that better protects freedom of expression.

Death Threats
Tunisia has witnessed an unprecedented campaign of death threats against journalists, writers and media workers critical of the ruling Ennahda Party and its handling of recent events.

Most disturbingly, a ‘death list’ of names of prominent writers and journalists who supposedly “antagonise Islam” is said to be in circulation, with writer and journalist Naziha Rjiba one of those to have received anonymous telephone death threats. It is widely believed the League for Protecting the Revolution – said to have close ties with the Ennahda Party – issued the list. Rjiba received a call shortly after the assassination of Mr. Belaiid in which she was warned to be silent or else “she would be next.”

On 11 February, journalists Nawfel El Wartani and Haythem El Maaki from Radio Mosaique FM had their lives threatened for their coverage of Mr. Belaiid’s funeral. The station had already been the recipient of threats and had applied to the Ministry of Interior for protection.

Veteran journalist and former head of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), Naji Bghouri, has received a number of death threats via email and mobile phone. The latest incident occurred on 14 February when a member of the League for Protecting the Revolution reportedly shouted, “soon, you’ll be killed.” Najiba Hamrouni, current head of the SNJ, has also reported receiving death threats from unknown callers who accuse him of defaming the Ennahda Party and “insulting Islam”.

IFEX members are seriously alarmed by these developments and call on the Tunisian authorities to urgently provide those targeted with a safe environment in which to carry out their work. They also call on authorities to fully investigate those responsible for issuing such threats so as to deter a climate of impunity in the country.

Attacks on Freedom of Expression Escalate
IFEX members consider the 22 January decision by deputy leader of the National Constitutional Assembly, Mehrezia Labidi, to ban journalists from working inside the Assembly as a deliberate attempt to deny access to information, and call on the authorities to recall the decision.

Harassment and physical attacks are also on the rise. On 24 January police interrogated Al-Shrouk journalist, Mona Bou Azizi, following a complaint by a local official over her coverage of events in the city of Qarjani. Bou Azizi has been repeatedly harassed and prevented from carrying out her work.

Reports suggest that security forces have deliberately targeted journalists covering the fallout from the assassination of Mr. Belaid. On 7 February, police in Gafsa City attacked Tunisia Africa News Agency journalist, Farida al-Mabrouki as she covered clashes with protesters. In a similar incident, Shraz Al-Khunaisi, a journalist with Internet TV channel Tunis Al-Ikhbariya, was also attacked and dragged to the ground by police.

Another journalist for the same channel, Ahmad Akkouni, was hit by a rubber bullet while covering clashes between police and protesters in Tunis. The following day, police officers physically attacked Tarek Al-Ghorani, a photographer and staff member with the Tunis Centre for the Freedom of Press, as he took pictures at Mr. Belaid’s funeral.
In addition, rapper and playwright Muhammad Amin al- Hamzawi required hospital treatment following a severe assault by up to five police officers that took place as he participated in the funeral. Al-Hamzawi is known for songs criticising police attacks on protesters.

Hate speech
Evidence is emerging that the media are being subjected to a deliberate campaign of hate speech during prayer ceremonies and in political discourses. Prayer leaders in several mosques across Tunisia have blamed journalists and writers for either “insulting Islam” or “hindering the work of the Ennahda Party”, while journalists criticised by politicians have reportedly been the victims of reprisal attacks.

During the 15 February rally held in support of the Ennahda Party in Tunis, widespread anti-media rhetoric was heard from speakers and marchers alike. Shouts of “shameless media” accompanied physical attacks against journalists covering the event. A prevalence of graffiti slogans stating “Journalists are liars” and “Journalists are hypocrites” can also be seen on the streets of the capital.

Broadcast woes
The independence of the broadcast media has been called further into question following the unplanned proliferation of new radio stations and TV channels across the country, many of which are owned by pro-government, Ennahda Party supporters.

The government has also been accused of silencing a number of emerging independent radio stations by withdrawing frequencies under the pretext of unpaid license fees. On 12 February, Oxygen Radio Bizerte was shut down for 24 hours, a move seen by Tunisian human rights groups as political interference aimed at silencing critical voices.

IFEX members repeat calls for the Tunisian authorities to appoint an independent body that has the power to organise the audio-visual licensing system fairly and without political bias.

Legislative stalling
Despite public statements on 10 December 2012 announcing the adoption of long-overdue legislation, and with it the establishment of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAICA), IFEX members note little change regarding the implementation of the government’s media laws, particularly in respect to decrees 115 and 116 concerning media freedom.

As a crucial step in guaranteeing the safety of journalists, IFEX members again call on the Tunisian authorities to implement these decrees as a matter of urgency. For the independence of the media to be assured, wider consultation should also be sought from civil society and journalist organisations to supply HAICA with a broader, more legitimate mandate for chang

**********************************************************************************************************************************************
IFEX members, including many of the signatories to this statement, have cooperated since 2005 through the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) to support Tunisian free expression rights on the national, regional and international stage. IFEX members from the TMG group continue this support, collectively and as individual organisations.

Tunisia:

Islamister utfordrer kunstnerisk ytringsfrihet

25 June 2012

IFEX-TMG alarmed by recent attacks on artistic expression
SOURCE: IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

(IFEX-TMG) – 25 June 2012 – The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, is alarmed by the recent attacks in Tunisia on freedom of expression, in particular against artistic expression, in the name of religion.

On 10 June 2012, three ultra-conservative Islamists (reportedly two men and a woman), who were accompanied by a bailiff and a lawyer, toured the Palais El-Abdellia, an art gallery in Tunis, taking part in the Printemps des Arts modern contemporary art fair. The group demanded that the organisers take down two artworks which they claimed were offensive to Islam.

When their request was denied, the Islamists returned later that night with a large number of supporters and broke into the exhibition from the rear walls, burned the painting of Faten Gaddass, and tore to pieces two linen artworks, one by Mohamed Ben Slama, and the second by a French artist.

On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close the gallery, after violent reactions in several Tunisian cities, including the capital Tunis. Ennahda ruling party claimed that some of the artworks were provocative and that they violated the «principles of Islam and the holy beliefs of Tunisian people.»

Furthermore, the Tunisian Minister of Culture, Mehdi Mabrouk, declared that some of the artworks exhibited at Printemps des Arts do in fact violate Islamic holy symbols, which the artists deny. He has also said that some of these artworks are now under investigation. After acknowledging the provocative role of art, on the morning of 14 June, Mabrouk told Radio Shems FM that six works deemed to be «provocative» had been confiscated.

At a press conference held on 12 June, the Minister announced that the government would likely present a bill to the National Constituent Assembly which would allow criminal charges to be brought against anyone who offends «the sacred.» Blasphemy laws are a clear violation of freedom of expression and would present a serious setback to human rights in Tunisia, say IFEX-TMG members.

Previously, on 27 May, Salafist groups attacked the playwright Rajab Al-Maqary in El Kef city. He subsequently suffered serious injuries after being beaten severely on his head and chest. He is still receiving treatment in a Tunis hospital.

IFEX-TMG strongly condemns the increasing use of violence against artists and writers by ultra-conservative groups. IFEX-TMG is particularly concerned about the closure of the exhibition in the Printemps des Arts gallery by the Ministry of Culture, rather than the guaranteeing of a safe environment in which artists can work freely, without threats or censorship.

IFEX-TMG members are additionally concerned about the ongoing detention of Tunisian blogger Jabeur Ben Abdallah Mejri, who was sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment for publishing writings alleged to be offensive to Islam. Mejri’s appeal was held on 24 May and was adjourned. According to his lawyer, the new date has not been set yet. IFEX- TMG calls for his immediate release.

«It is disturbing that those entrusted to promote and defend freedom of expression in Tunisia would side with the dictates of radical groups that resort to violence and destruction to impose their views. The IFEX-TMG calls on the government to take robust steps to protect the right to free expression, so that citizens can enjoy this fundamental right without fear of retribution,» says Virginie Jouan, Chair of the IFEX-TMG.

For more information:
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Virginie Jouan, Chair
on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)
jouanvirginie (@) gmail.com
http://www.facebook.com/IFEXTMG
http://ifex.org/tunisia/tmg/
@IFEXTMG

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
Freedom House
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Journaliste en danger (JED)
Maharat Foundation (Skills Foundation)
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)
World Press Freedom Committee
Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International

Tuniserne vil ikke la seg kneble igjen!

Tunisians will not be easily unplugged again

16 Jan 2011

Discreet coup or “Jasmine Revolution”, the departure of Tunisia’s despot Zine el Abidene Ben Ali will not end his networked citizens’ calls for reform.

While Tunisians took time to savour the moment, or enjoy their release from detention, or book a emotional flight home, the Twitterverse slipped into post-game pundit mode to consider Friday’s dramatic events in the North African state.

Mindful of the lazy analysis that gave social media undeserved credit for fomenting Iran’s Twitter revolution that wasn’t, there was no rush to be fooled twice by the wave of chatter under the #sidibouzid hash tag that had followed each new development in Tunisia.

Sidi Bouzid was the town where a despairing jobless ex-student set himself alight in December, killing himself and setting off weeks of violence that culminated in Friday’s flight of despot president Zine el Abidene Ben Ali.

Al Jazeera satellite tv was relentless in its coverage, even as Tunisia’s own media stayed resolutely silent. Twitter and 3G phones played their parts and to fill the rest of the information gap left by the pro-state press, Tunisians used well honed circumvention skills to read websites blocked by one of the region’s most advanced web censorship systems.

But Tunisia is a well networked country at a human level too. Young, highly educated, technically savvy, every sector of society has its own community of articulate, engaged critics of the regime. Actors, lawyers, musicians, teachers, trades unionists, most of whom ignored the official press and were unimpressed by state sanctioned broadcasters.

These loosely networked groups were countered by gaggles of made-up organisations founded and funded by the regime to give thin support to its works, wryly named GONGOs or Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations.

Independents who tried to turn their networks into active civil society groups were prevented from legally registering and thus effectively banned. Those few already registered — such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the Middle East’s oldest human rights group — or the country’s journalists’ union, found themselves organisationally shackled by a series of arcane legal challenges.

Denial of the right to freedom of association was enforced by the denial of another right, that of a fair hearing before an independent judiciary. Defying international practice, the president’s representatives handpicked judges, punishing those who failed to deliver regime-friendly verdicts with banishment to minor circuit courts the other side of the country.

Yet walking through Tunis’ Palace of Justice last month with independent lawyer Mohammed Abbou, a man jailed, beaten and publicly reviled by the state for years, we could hardly pass for scores of colleagues happy to be seen talking, hugging or kissing him. All under the eyes of the plainclothes police trailing him and us in an intentionally obvious intimidatory manner.

Even in a chamber as firmly controlled as the Palace of Justice, you wondered where the regime was, not least because Ben Ali’s mantra had been that the opposition was  just a tiny minority, funded by hostile governments and manipulated by foreign activists.

Everywhere you went you met well educated and connected people talking, complaining, speculating, sharing banned information.

Ben Ali’s men worked hard to to manipulate the media or sell it off to his friends and family, then assiduously targeted bloggers and social media leaders. Then in his last throw of the dice the night before the collapse, Ben Ali did a bizarre u-turn on live tv, unblocked banned websites and promised media reforms.

It was testimony to the regime’s belief in the significance of free expression. It believed the key to remaining in power lay in stopping Tunisians from talking, by hacking and deleting their e-mail accounts, bugging their phones, bringing trumped up criminal charges against them, or if all else failed, ordering a couple of thugs to give them a vicious kicking.

In the end the message they shared was that the emperor had no clothes. The debate goes on as to whether Twitter played the little boy to point that out first. Whatever, things will not be as they were.

People have been given a voice and they will not readily give it up. Those tweeters and photo sharers who worked hard to document the fall of the old regime will be doubly inspired by Friday’s triumph to track attempts by the new one to obstruct reform.

Even in a chamber as firmly controlled as the Palace of Justice, you wondered where the regime was, not least because Ben Ali’s mantra had been that the opposition was  just a tiny minority, funded by hostile governments and manipulated by foreign activists.

Everywhere you went you met well educated and connected people talking, complaining, speculating, sharing banned information.

Ben Ali’s men worked hard to to manipulate the media or sell it off to his friends and family, then assiduously targeted bloggers and social media leaders. Then in his last throw of the dice the night before the collapse, Ben Ali did a bizarre u-turn on live tv, unblocked banned websites and promised media reforms.

It was testimony to the regime’s belief in the significance of free expression. It believed the key to remaining in power lay in stopping Tunisians from talking, by hacking and deleting their e-mail accounts, bugging their phones, bringing trumped up criminal charges against them, or if all else failed, ordering a couple of thugs to give them a vicious kicking.

In the end the message they shared was that the emperor had no clothes. The debate goes on as to whether Twitter played the little boy to point that out first. Whatever, things will not be as they were.

People have been given a voice and they will not readily give it up. Those tweeters and photo sharers who worked hard to document the fall of the old regime will be doubly inspired by Friday’s triumph to track attempts by the new one to obstruct reform.

Tunisia needs a media worthy of its inspiring election

Tuesday’s expected declaration of Tunisia’s election results will say much about the main players in its great adventure in democracy building. It won’t reveal much about what those players plan to do with with their unique mandate. For that you’ll need an independent Tunisian media, in print, on air and online.

In turn that means a new legal and institutional framework on freedom of expression, swifter development of the broadcast and print media sectors and protections for the the Internet against the resurgence of censorship.

Tunisia’s Sunday elections will establish a 217 member constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and give legitimacy to an interim government ahead of full parliamentary elections.

The extraordinary turnout, an astounding estimated 90%, gives both authority and diversity to the new assembly. It increases the chances that the assembly will allow space for women, rural and inland industrial communities and a proportional voice for minorities – a priority of the Ben Achour Commission that led the election’s organisation.

It also finally gives some kind of true measure to Islamist political influence and brings members of the old regime still in politics out of the shadows.

The stage is set for a complex debate that will test the Tunisian media and its capacity to communicate the works of the new assembly. But despite solid efforts by the country’s post-revolution National Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC) – the media landscape evolution has been slow.

To meet the challenge the new assembly must promote strong constitutional and legal guarantees for freedom of expression rights and access to information. There will need to be a properly supported successor to INRIC, an independent regulatory body that can effectively promote the independence and growth of the media.

The new body and the regulations that it implements will have to guide public service broadcasting as well as private, commercial and community broadcasting and empower and protect journalists dedicated to quality journalism that can serve and inform the public at large.

These points were raised this month by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), currently chaired by Index on Censorship.

Based on the results of a two-day strategy workshop of Tunisian media and legal experts held in Tunis on 27 and 28 September, its report also calls for the promotion of a digital culture, by supporting blogging, online activism and citizen journalism.

It’s not clear how the assembly will handle new legislation, or how it will deal with current draft decrees that will have force of law but in the case of the print and broadcast sector have proven highly contentious in their drafting.

An increasingly heated debate between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia led to a street protest by thousands of liberal demonstrators the week before the vote. On 9 October over 300 pro-Islamists tried to attack the HQ of Nessma TV after a showing of the film Persepolis, which takes an acerbic view of Islamists in Iran.

That was followed by the filing of a claim signed by 144 lawyers alleging breaches of the still valid pre-revolution media law by Nessma TV head Nabil Karoui and articles 226 and 226 (b) of the criminal code prohibiting offences against religion and public decency.

Sami Ben Abdallah, a Tunisian blogger resident in France, was banned from leaving Tunis airport in September and questioned for allegedly sending insulting SMS messages. His family told Reporters sans Frontieres they linked the harrassment to his investigations into a businessman close to the former regime.

These and other incidents suggest that the rights of the independent media in Tunisia is built on much less stable foundations than its citizens expect and demand, especially given its responsibilities in the months to come.

From TMG-chair Rohan Jayasekera´s blog.

Tunisia:

Skjør ytrings- og mediefrihet etter vellykket valg

Tunisia needs a media worthy of its inspiring election

Tuesday’s expected declaration of Tunisia’s election results will say much about the main players in its great adventure in democracy building. It won’t reveal much about what those players plan to do with with their unique mandate. For that you’ll need an independent Tunisian media, in print, on air and online.

In turn that means a new legal and institutional framework on freedom of expression, swifter development of the broadcast and print media sectors and protections for the the Internet against the resurgence of censorship.

Tunisia’s Sunday elections will establish a 217 member constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and give legitimacy to an interim government ahead of full parliamentary elections.

The extraordinary turnout, an astounding estimated 90%, gives both authority and diversity to the new assembly. It increases the chances that the assembly will allow space for women, rural and inland industrial communities and a proportional voice for minorities – a priority of the Ben Achour Commission that led the election’s organisation.

It also finally gives some kind of true measure to Islamist political influence and brings members of the old regime still in politics out of the shadows.

The stage is set for a complex debate that will test the Tunisian media and its capacity to communicate the works of the new assembly. But despite solid efforts by the country’s post-revolution National Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC) – the media landscape evolution has been slow.

To meet the challenge the new assembly must promote strong constitutional and legal guarantees for freedom of expression rights and access to information. There will need to be a properly supported successor to INRIC, an independent regulatory body that can effectively promote the independence and growth of the media.

The new body and the regulations that it implements will have to guide public service broadcasting as well as private, commercial and community broadcasting and empower and protect journalists dedicated to quality journalism that can serve and inform the public at large.

These points were raised this month by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), currently chaired by Index on Censorship.

Based on the results of a two-day strategy workshop of Tunisian media and legal experts held in Tunis on 27 and 28 September, its report also calls for the promotion of a digital culture, by supporting blogging, online activism and citizen journalism.

It’s not clear how the assembly will handle new legislation, or how it will deal with current draft decrees that will have force of law but in the case of the print and broadcast sector have proven highly contentious in their drafting.

An increasingly heated debate between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia led to a street protest by thousands of liberal demonstrators the week before the vote. On 9 October over 300 pro-Islamists tried to attack the HQ of Nessma TV after a showing of the film Persepolis, which takes an acerbic view of Islamists in Iran.

That was followed by the filing of a claim signed by 144 lawyers alleging breaches of the still valid pre-revolution media law by Nessma TV head Nabil Karoui and articles 226 and 226 (b) of the criminal code prohibiting offences against religion and public decency.

Sami Ben Abdallah, a Tunisian blogger resident in France, was banned from leaving Tunis airport in September and questioned for allegedly sending insulting SMS messages. His family told Reporters sans Frontieres they linked the harrassment to his investigations into a businessman close to the former regime.

These and other incidents suggest that the rights of the independent media in Tunisia is built on much less stable foundations than its citizens expect and demand, especially given its responsibilities in the months to come.

Tunisia:

Politimann varslet om tortur – frikjent av militærdomstol

Free expression groups celebrate freeing of whistleblower police commissioner
SOURCE: IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

(IFEX-TMG) – 3 October 2011 – Free expression defenders are celebrating Thursday’s decision by a military court to drop charges against a Tunisian policeman who blew the whistle on a still-active core of officers from the country’s pre-revolution days – some of them alleged torturers, others linked to Tunisia’s long notorious internet surveillance squads.

Senior Tunisian police commissioner Samir Feriani, a public critic of the way officers previously linked to torture and censorship continue to hold influence over the security services, was dramatically arrested and initially held incommunicado on 29 May. Anti-terrorist police allegedly rammed his car before seizing him.

But on 29 September, a military court acquitted him of charges of «harming the external security of the state,» and declined to hear two other charges of distributing information «likely to harm public order,» and «accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law.»

Though the last two charges may yet be transferred to a civilian court, the Thursday verdict was celebrated widely by Feriani’s supporters and his family, including his elderly mother, who was in court for the hearing.

The day-long hearing was observed by members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 free expression groups.

Feriani told the IFEX-TMG observers that the verdict was not about him, but about all Tunisia and the right to freedom of expression. He was particularly pleased that the court had proved its independence from political interference and had delivered a fair and transparent verdict.

Thanking the IFEX-TMG for its support, he said he had not yet decided his next steps and would simply «wait and see,» adding, «the most important thing now is Tunisia settles down and the remains of the regime disappear.»

Feriani was arrested and later charged after he sent a strongly-worded letter to Interior Minister Habib Essid in which he blamed current officials for allowing protesters to be killed during the January 2011 Tunisian revolution, and warned that «notorious torturers» remain at large.

He also accused officers of destroying official records, including some taken from the former residence of the late PLO Leader Yasser Arafat. His accusations were reported in two newspapers, El Khabir and l’Audace, before his arrest.

The Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d’édition et de création (OLPEC), a member of IFEX and partner of Index on Censorship, has long argued that the police and security services should be held more accountable and subject to law.

OLPEC secretary-general Sihem Bensedrine said the verdict was a «fair outcome» that could restore some confidence in the Tunisian courts but left questions about the old regime’s lingering power even after the January 2011 revolution.

«It shows how the secret services continue to manipulate the archives,» she said, «denying their victims evidence while exposing the failure of the provisional government to act.»

IFEX-TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship added: «The right of whistleblowers to go public and expose wrongdoing when official channels fail to address crimes is clear and absolute. The decision of the court today is evidence that Tunisia can have a future as a mature democracy guided by fair and independent justice.»

For more information:
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Rohan Jayasekera, Chair
c/o Index on Censorship
London
United Kingdom
rj (@) indexoncensorship.org
Phone: +44 20 7324 2522

IFEX – Tunisia

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
Freedom House
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 (Skills Foundation)
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International

——————————————————————————–

Tunisia: Free expression groups celebrate freeing of whistleblower police commissioner

3 October 2011

Free expression groups celebrate freeing of whistleblower police commissioner
SOURCE: IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

(IFEX-TMG) – 3 October 2011 – Free expression defenders are celebrating Thursday’s decision by a military court to drop charges against a Tunisian policeman who blew the whistle on a still-active core of officers from the country’s pre-revolution days – some of them alleged torturers, others linked to Tunisia’s long notorious internet surveillance squads.

Senior Tunisian police commissioner Samir Feriani, a public critic of the way officers previously linked to torture and censorship continue to hold influence over the security services, was dramatically arrested and initially held incommunicado on 29 May. Anti-terrorist police allegedly rammed his car before seizing him.

But on 29 September, a military court acquitted him of charges of «harming the external security of the state,» and declined to hear two other charges of distributing information «likely to harm public order,» and «accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law.»

Though the last two charges may yet be transferred to a civilian court, the Thursday verdict was celebrated widely by Feriani’s supporters and his family, including his elderly mother, who was in court for the hearing.

The day-long hearing was observed by members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 free expression groups.

Feriani told the IFEX-TMG observers that the verdict was not about him, but about all Tunisia and the right to freedom of expression. He was particularly pleased that the court had proved its independence from political interference and had delivered a fair and transparent verdict.

Thanking the IFEX-TMG for its support, he said he had not yet decided his next steps and would simply «wait and see,» adding, «the most important thing now is Tunisia settles down and the remains of the regime disappear.»

Feriani was arrested and later charged after he sent a strongly-worded letter to Interior Minister Habib Essid in which he blamed current officials for allowing protesters to be killed during the January 2011 Tunisian revolution, and warned that «notorious torturers» remain at large.

He also accused officers of destroying official records, including some taken from the former residence of the late PLO Leader Yasser Arafat. His accusations were reported in two newspapers, El Khabir and l’Audace, before his arrest.

The Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d’édition et de création (OLPEC), a member of IFEX and partner of Index on Censorship, has long argued that the police and security services should be held more accountable and subject to law.

OLPEC secretary-general Sihem Bensedrine said the verdict was a «fair outcome» that could restore some confidence in the Tunisian courts but left questions about the old regime’s lingering power even after the January 2011 revolution.

«It shows how the secret services continue to manipulate the archives,» she said, «denying their victims evidence while exposing the failure of the provisional government to act.»

IFEX-TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship added: «The right of whistleblowers to go public and expose wrongdoing when official channels fail to address crimes is clear and absolute. The decision of the court today is evidence that Tunisia can have a future as a mature democracy guided by fair and independent justice.»

For more information:
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Rohan Jayasekera, Chair
c/o Index on Censorship
London
United Kingdom
rj (@) indexoncensorship.org
Phone: +44 20 7324 2522

IFEX – Tunisia

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
Freedom House
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 (Skills Foundation)
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International

Tunisia, February 2011: Still skeletons in the closet

«This is only one of many statements overheard at a conference in Tunis last Friday.  The conference, hosted by a number of previously «forbidden» civil society organizations in Tunisia, aimed to look into how the opposition and the NGOs can work together in order to secure a true, democratic development in the country.  These organizations were not allowed by Ben Alis regime, and arranging a conference like this only one month ago was not possible.  The Ben Ali regime did whatever they could to stop the Tunisian people and NGO from getting together.»

Says Secretary General of norwegian PEN, Carl Morten Iversen, just returned from a three-day stay in Tunisia´s capital Tunis.  «All pictures of president Ben Ali which greeted you at the airport, on huge posters throughout Tunis, in cafes and hotel receptions as well as daily on the front page of the regime friendly»La Presse», have been removed», he says.  «This does not mean that democracy is secured.  The president may have fled, but too many of his supporters are still holding positions in the transition government, the administration or in the media.  At this point there is no guarantee that a true, democratic Tunisia will be the result of this ongoing process.»

The Tunisian political opposition and civil society organizations are now at a critical stage.  «Almost all the people we talked to seemed to realize that Tunisia now had one golden opportunity to establish a working democracy, but time is of the essence.  There are lots of actors and many skeletons in the closets.  The journalists in «La Presse» who have formerly conducted smear campaigns against free expression- and human rights-activists, now come across as the heroes of the revolution and attack president Ben Ali whom they previously supported.  This is hardly believable», says Iversen, who has contributed to the monitoring of the situation in Tunisia through the international Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) since 2004 and visited the country six times since 2005.

«It is important not to forget Tunisia now that the focus of the world press is aimed at the recent events in Egypt.  Our colleagues in Tunisia still need international support, among other things in order to establish free and independent media institutions, including an independent media council.  The TMG members are now looking into the possibility to get funding for this work so that it can get started immediately», he adds.

9. february 2011

A personal letter from Tunisia

Dear Friends,

I am sorry I didn’t drop a line earlier to tell you that I have never seen so many red lines crossed in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January. The amazing process of turning the page of dictatorial rule is developing at a very rapid pace. State-owned and privately owned media outlets, including the ones launched by Ben Ali’s family members and cronies and newspapers accustomed to lead smear campaigns, are giving voice to political dissidents and rights activists. It’s no longer a risky taboo for local media and journalists to interview opposition or rights figures such as Moncef Marzouki, Sihem Bensedrine, Mokhtar Yahyaoui or Kelthoum Kennou.

The democratically elected board of the Association of Tunisian judges (AMT) met with the minister of justice last week. The page of injustice and punishment inflicted on them in 2005 is apparently and gradually being turned. Rahmouni, Kennou, Kaabi and their board colleaues are using todat the office from which they were arbitrarily evicted 6 years ago.

On Sunday eveing Hannibal TV stopped broadcasting briefly after Tunisian authorities decided to arrest its owner Larbi Nasra and his son for «high treason.» Nasra is known for being close to Ben Ali. Many expressed concern about the future of freedom of expression when Hannibal TV suddenly stopped boradcasting. They uttered a sigh of relief later when it resumed broadcasting.

Protesters are still taking to the streets particularly in Tunis to call for the eviction from the so-called «national unity government» of former top aides of the country’s former dictator. These protests are expected to quiet down once some, if not all, of these top aides involved in corruption and promoting Ben Ali are evicted.

Best,
Kamel

Tunisian will not be gagged again

Tunisians will not be easily unplugged again

16 Jan 2011

Discreet coup or “Jasmine Revolution”, the departure of Tunisia’s despot Zine el Abidene Ben Ali will not end his networked citizens’ calls for reform.

While Tunisians took time to savour the moment, or enjoy their release from detention, or book a emotional flight home, the Twitterverse slipped into post-game pundit mode to consider Friday’s dramatic events in the North African state.

Mindful of the lazy analysis that gave social media undeserved credit for fomenting Iran’s Twitter revolution that wasn’t, there was no rush to be fooled twice by the wave of chatter under the #sidibouzid hash tag that had followed each new development in Tunisia.

Sidi Bouzid was the town where a despairing jobless ex-student set himself alight in December, killing himself and setting off weeks of violence that culminated in Friday’s flight of despot president Zine el Abidene Ben Ali.

Al Jazeera satellite tv was relentless in its coverage, even as Tunisia’s own media stayed resolutely silent. Twitter and 3G phones played their parts and to fill the rest of the information gap left by the pro-state press, Tunisians used well honed circumvention skills to read websites blocked by one of the region’s most advanced web censorship systems.

But Tunisia is a well networked country at a human level too. Young, highly educated, technically savvy, every sector of society has its own community of articulate, engaged critics of the regime. Actors, lawyers, musicians, teachers, trades unionists, most of whom ignored the official press and were unimpressed by state sanctioned broadcasters.

These loosely networked groups were countered by gaggles of made-up organisations founded and funded by the regime to give thin support to its works, wryly named GONGOs or Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations.

Independents who tried to turn their networks into active civil society groups were prevented from legally registering and thus effectively banned. Those few already registered — such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the Middle East’s oldest human rights group — or the country’s journalists’ union, found themselves organisationally shackled by a series of arcane legal challenges.

Denial of the right to freedom of association was enforced by the denial of another right, that of a fair hearing before an independent judiciary. Defying international practice, the president’s representatives handpicked judges, punishing those who failed to deliver regime-friendly verdicts with banishment to minor circuit courts the other side of the country.

Yet walking through Tunis’ Palace of Justice last month with independent lawyer Mohammed Abbou, a man jailed, beaten and publicly reviled by the state for years, we could hardly pass for scores of colleagues happy to be seen talking, hugging or kissing him. All under the eyes of the plainclothes police trailing him and us in an intentionally obvious intimidatory manner.

Even in a chamber as firmly controlled as the Palace of Justice, you wondered where the regime was, not least because Ben Ali’s mantra had been that the opposition was  just a tiny minority, funded by hostile governments and manipulated by foreign activists.

Everywhere you went you met well educated and connected people talking, complaining, speculating, sharing banned information.

Ben Ali’s men worked hard to to manipulate the media or sell it off to his friends and family, then assiduously targeted bloggers and social media leaders. Then in his last throw of the dice the night before the collapse, Ben Ali did a bizarre u-turn on live tv, unblocked banned websites and promised media reforms.

It was testimony to the regime’s belief in the significance of free expression. It believed the key to remaining in power lay in stopping Tunisians from talking, by hacking and deleting their e-mail accounts, bugging their phones, bringing trumped up criminal charges against them, or if all else failed, ordering a couple of thugs to give them a vicious kicking.

In the end the message they shared was that the emperor had no clothes. The debate goes on as to whether Twitter played the little boy to point that out first. Whatever, things will not be as they were.

People have been given a voice and they will not readily give it up. Those tweeters and photo sharers who worked hard to document the fall of the old regime will be doubly inspired by Friday’s triumph to track attempts by the new one to obstruct reform.

The system was bust before and is still bust, with or without Ben Ali, and still needs fixing.

Special circumstances apply in Tunisia that tend to rule out the weekend’s events as a model for revolutions anywhere, let alone as a harbinger of a Twittered Arab Spring.

The regime’s heart was unusually hollow, even by the standards of the region. Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali did not buy up a broad core of support to keep him in power, but kept the ill-gotten gains of staggering corruption in the hands of a small coterie of friends and family.

The recent WikiLeaks release of a handful of secret diplomatic cables detailing the depth of this corruption was not news to Tunisians. What seemed to bite deeper was the fact that the US ambassador to Tunis treated it as a tolerable fact, no matter for concern.

Maybe that finally broke the Tunisians of the oft-cited Arab “habit” of living in denial about their problems, and inspired them instead to look among themselves for answers.

It at least raises the possibility that the Arab world’s social networks might yet do more than just be on hand to lubricate a stalled engine for change, driven by economic inequality and fuelled by opportunity.

Rohan Jayasekera