Fokus på kvinner i Tunisia

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

 

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 Constitution in 1959, during the reign of President Habib Bourguiba, they have not been upheld by the current President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power 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.

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. 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 lawyer, human rights activist 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 allowing slanderous public advertisements in newspapers like «Al Hadath», and 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) has also been arrested and targeted by the police; she was also held incommunicado in November 2009. Her blog, like other critical blogs, has been censored.

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. Academic and activist Zakia Dhifaoui spent three months in jail after being arrested during a peaceful protest in Gafsa in July 2008. Ghazela M’Hamdi, a rights activist in Gafsa, has also been beaten by police while exercising her right to protest peacefully.

Afef Ben Nasser is routinely verbally harassed by police in Gafsa, who also broke into her store in 2009. Ben Nasser is the wife of journalist Fahem Baoukaddous, 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 Toufik Ben Brik, who is critically ill. While lobbying for his release in Tunisia, she has been verbally assaulted by police.

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,

Members of the TMG:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
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

Members of the IFEX Gender Working Group:
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. Ms. Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Special Procedures Division – Human Rights Defenders
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: +41.22.917.93.84  +41.22.917.93.84
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

8. March 2010: TMG writes to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

8 March 2010

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

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 Constitution in 1959, during the reign of President Habib Bourguiba, they have not been upheld by the current President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power 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.

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. 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 lawyer, human rights activist 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 allowing slanderous public advertisements in newspapers like «Al Hadath», and 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) has also been arrested and targeted by the police; she was also held incommunicado in November 2009. Her blog, like other critical blogs, has been censored.

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. Academic and activist Zakia Dhifaoui spent three months in jail after being arrested during a peaceful protest in Gafsa in July 2008. Ghazela M’Hamdi, a rights activist in Gafsa, has also been beaten by police while exercising her right to protest peacefully.

Afef Ben Nasser is routinely verbally harassed by police in Gafsa, who also broke into her store in 2009. Ben Nasser is the wife of journalist Fahem Baoukaddous, 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 Toufik Ben Brik, who is critically ill. While lobbying for his release in Tunisia, she has been verbally assaulted by police.

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,

Members of the TMG:
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
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

Members of the IFEX Gender Working Group:
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. Ms. Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Special Procedures Division – Human Rights Defenders
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Geneva, Switzerland

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

10-2007: Mohammed Abbou: Tyve år med lidelser

Mohammed Abbou: Tyve år med lidelse

Hvor bedrøvelig er det ikke å måtte bo i et samfunn, styrt av en stat som ikke garanterer menneskerettigheter, heller ikke verdighet eller frihet, og som mobiliserer sine institusjoner i den hensikt å undertrykke borgerne uten å måtte stå til ansvar for sine handlinger overfor noen.

Hvor smertefullt er det ikke for en intellektuell å se at flertallet av innbyggerne i ditt land lever under et skrekkregime og dermed i stor grad søker trygghet for seg selv og sine familier.

Hvor trist er det ikke å se at opposisjonen, til tross sine mange ofre, ikke har lykkes med å fjerne despotene.

En stat som ikke respekterer rettstatens prinsipper, et folk paralysert av frykt og en svak opposisjon: Slik er resultatet av tjue års styre, under ledelse av ledet av den tunisiske republikkens andre president Zine el- Abedine Ben Ali; en stat som ikke respekterer rettsstatens elementære prinsipper.

Staten er nødvendig for å sikre samfunnet, for å sikre at rettferdighet overvinner personlige hevntanker, for å utarbeide lover og sørge for at disse respekteres av borgere med de samme rettigheter og plikter.

I Tunisia, refererer vi ofte til denne definisjonen som referanse i vårt dagligliv. Men vi står overfor institusjoner som fungerer mer eller mindre normalt.  Vi står overfor et sikkerhetsapparat som av og til forfølger og straffer kriminelle, men samtidig opptrer som en bande som truer, angriper og torturerer helt uten respekt for de lovene de er satt til å håndheve.

Staten har bevisst plassert sine egne – de mektige – som ikke må stå til rette for noen, over loven.  Ingen får lov til å kritisere dem, enn si fordømme eller avdekke den korrupsjonen de er involvert i.  Gjør du det, blir du kastet i fengsel.  Skrikene om hjelp fra innsiden av fengselsmurene får ingen oppmerksomhet, heller ikke uttalelser fra vestlige allierte, uttalelser som ofte står i motsetning til andre skjulte holdninger.

Disse samme institusjonene blir tidvis brukt til å forfølge opposisjonelle som tør å kritisere det sittende regimet.  De blir fratatt livsgrunnlaget, de blir utsultet og ydmyket på en måte de aldri vil glemme.  De blir angrepet på gaten, og barna deres blir mobbet.  Alt dette for å sikre regimets eksistens og absolutte makt, en makt som legitimeres gjennom valg gjennomført i et klima av frykt.  Et mindretall av velgerne blir tvunget til å stemme i regimets favør gjennom, demonstrativt (og i alles påsyn), å legge en rød stemmeseddel i urnen.  Samtidig sørger valgmedarbeiderne for å stemme på vegne av alle dem som ikke er til stede, alt dette mens Tunisias vestlige partnere har som oppgave å promotere landets gode rykte i utlandet.

Et folk paralysert av frykt
Det tunisiske regimet sprer frykt i befolkningen for å holde på makten.  Da jeg våget å fordømme den situasjonen vi lever under i Tunisia, brøt jeg et tabu gjennom å eksponere skandalene og avdekke korrupsjonen.  Det var da myndighetene bestemte seg for å forfølge min familie.  Så kastet de meg i fengsel for å ydmyke meg.

Til tross for det store presset myndighetene ble utsatt for, forlenget de fengselsoppholdet mitt så lenge de kunne.  Ikke fordi jeg ledet en organisasjon som representerte en  trussel mot regimet.  Ikke engang fordi jeg stilte spørsmålstegn ved makthaverens trone, en trone dekket av blod og tårer. Nei, den eneste grunnen var at jeg, etter deres syn, var representant for en konfrontasjonslinje som truet med å forgifte hele samfunnet.

Dette er bare et lite glimt av den politikken regimet har ført i 20 år.  En politikk som også ble ført av den forrige presidenten.

Jeg husker en vits som ble fortalt av nå avdøde Mohamed Chakroun da han var statsråd i president Bourgibas regjering og han ledsaget presidenten til innvielsen av en avdeling av nasjonalgarden som nylig var blitt «tunisifisert».  Chakroun sa: «Det ville vært fornuftig hvis folket lærte å elske Nasjonalgarden etter at de alltid har fryktet [det franske] «Gendarmeriet».  Bourgiba repliserte: «Det hadde vært bedre om deres frykt for «Gendarmeriet» besto.

Denne tradisjonen med fryktpolitikken som redskap for regimet – er blitt styrket og utvidet under den sittende presidenten.  Denne politikken er blitt en «skole» med avanserte metoder.  Myndighetene går så langt som til å bekjentgjøre sine bedrifter på dette området slik at innbyggerne tydelig skal forstå at det ikke inngås kompromisser og at det ikke finnes nåde for de som utfordrer dem.

Det sanksjoneres ikke lenger kun gjennom fengsling og tortur, men også gjennom kollektiv avstraffelse som for eksempel å la nærmeste familie til fangene sulte. De som vil ofre frihet og helse for en sak, skal forstå at man også utsetter sin familie og sine barn for sult, terror og ødeleggelse.

Maktapparatet har hatt beundringsverdig stor suksess med denne politikken, og fram til i dag har et flertall av folket vært engstelige for i det hele tatt å snakke om politikk.

En svak opposisjon
Tunisia skiller seg fra andre arabiske land fordi det er etnisk og religiøst homogent.  Den store majoriteten er sunnimuslimer.  I Tunisia finnes det ikke minoriteter, ei heller stammesamfunn som krever spesiell beskyttelse og derfor oppstår ikke den type konflikter som man ser i andre arabiske land.

De ulike sivilisasjonene som har etterfulgt hverandre og slått rot i Tunisia har, sammen med naturen og den geografiske beliggenheten, gitt tunisierne et mildt og tolerant temperament.  I tillegg har landet hatt besøk av et stort antall turister i de siste 50 årene.  Tunisierne har vendt seg til turistene.  Tunisiere har også nytt godt av et høyt utdanningsnivå, takket være avgjørelser som ble tatt da landet ble uavhengig.

Disse sidene ved Tunisia er tilstrekkelig for at landet skal utvikle seg til et demokrati der rettstatens prinsipper råder og sikrer verdighet, frihet og framskritt for alle borgere, uten fare for konflikter og kaos.

Den tunisiske opposisjonen er fullt klar over dette, men den har fortsatt ikke klart å samle seg til å bli en politisk kraft.  I skjæringspunktet mellom frykten for represalier og ideologiske motsetninger (som ofte utnyttes av myndighetene), har den så langt ikke lykkes i å mobilisere en vesentlig del av innbyggerne og samtidig frigjøre disse fra frykten som råder.

Dette er den bedrøvelige virkeligheten, det er som om drømmen vår nekter å bli oppfylt.

Men bevisstheten om situasjonens alvor og de ulike forlik som dukker opp blant de mange politiske strømninger og ideologier på den ene siden, og enkelte tegn som viser at regimet blir avvist av flere på den annen side, vil hindre oss i å gi opp denne drømmen.  Dette trass økt undertrykking, og trass de mange stemmene som sprer tvil og håpløshet.

Vår besluttsomhet og vilje vil bli kronet med seier, og hvis vi ikke når fram, har vi full tiltro til neste generasjon.

Mohammed Abbou
Tunis, October 2007

Denne artikkelen ble bestilt av Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) og ble offentliggjort i en rekke vestlige medier i forbindelse med 20-årsjubileet for president Ben Alis maktovertagelse i november 2007.  Artikkelen er oversatt fra engelsk og fransk av Elisabeth Eide og Carl Morten Iversen.  Mohammed Abbou er advokat og MR-aktivist som ble fengslet pga. sine uttalelser på internett.  Han ble løslatt 24. juni 2007 etter å ha vært fenglset siden mars 2005.

Tunisia, april 2007

Report of the Tunisia Monitoring Group: Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds

 

April 2007

CONTENTS:

A.    Introduction                                    p. 3

B.    Facts on the ground

1. Prisoners of opinion                        p. 5
2. Internet blocking                            p. 7
3. Censorship of books                       p. 8
4. Independent organisations              p. 10
5. Journalists and dissidents                p. 13
6. Press freedom                                p. 15
7. Torture, police brutality and impunity        p. 16
8. The judiciary                                  p. 16

C.    Conclusions                                    p. 17

D.    Annexes                                         p. 19

A.    INTRODUCTION:

This is the fourth report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) and follows the latest of a series of fact-finding missions to Tunisia by members of the group in the run up to, and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The first mission, of six TMG members, took place from 14-19 January 2005 and led to the first report “Tunisia: Freedom of Expression Under Siege” , published in February 2005. The report described our initial findings and set out a series of recommendations to the Tunisian government.

Subsequent missions took place in May and September 2005 and in April 2006.  For mission reports, see: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/reports.html

TMG members actively took part in WSIS itself (16-18 November 2005).

During the course of the five missions the TMG has now met with over 300 individuals and over 50 organisations and institutions including members of the government and opposition, public officials, government supported organisations, independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, publishers, librarians, private broadcasters and others.

During the latest mission we met with a representative of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Surprisingly, the Director of the External Communications Agency (ATCE) refused to meet with us this time.

Since WSIS, and since the last TMG report issued in May 2006, we have disappointingly witnessed serious deterioration in the conditions related to freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly with respect to independent organisations, harassment of journalists and dissidents, independence of the judiciary, blocking of books and websites, and the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles on the Internet. Cumulatively these changes lead us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissent since May 2006.

We urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the recommendations we are making in this report and to show a real and immediate intent to remove the practices we have identified that violate international human rights laws and standards to which Tunisia is a signatory.

We call on the international community to take responsibility in holding Tunisia to account for its international obligations, to insist on real commitment to change and to ensure that independent voices in Tunisia are treated with the respect and tolerance of a rights-based democracy and not the abuses that we consider more characteristic of a police state.

In the following sections we set out the principal developments that we have observed since our first report.

About the Tunisia Monitoring Group

The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is a coalition of 16 organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 16 organisations are all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of 71 national, regional and international organisations committed to defending the right to freedom of expression.

The sixth mission of the TMG in Tunisia (27 February – 4 March 2007) was comprised of Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN, Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association(IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely. (Gamal Eid of the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo) was denied an entry visa to join the TMG mission in April 2006.)

Other members of the TMG are: Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), International PEN Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), International Press Institute (IPI), Journaliste en Danger (JED), Media Institute of South Africa (MISA), World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

B.    FACTS ON THE GROUND

1. Prisoners of opinion

We strongly reiterate past recommendations to Tunisian authorities:

* To end arbitrary administrative sanctions compelling journalist Abdallah Zouari to live nearly 500km away from his wife and children and guarantee his basic right to freedom of movement and expression.

* To release all prisoners of opinion held for their religious and political beliefs and who never advocated or used violence.

Furthermore we call for the immediate release of human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou.

Mohamed Abbou

On 1 March 2007, men who refused to identify themselves physically prevented the members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) delegation from entering a street in the town of Le Kef; the prison where human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou is jailed is located on the street to which they were denied access. A second group of men photographed the TMG delegation from a distance, and members of the TMG delegation were prevented from taking their own photographs by the same men. The delegation’s car had previously been stopped on the road to Le Kef for about ten minutes by a group of national guard officers plainclothed men, who also refused to identify themselves (for more, please see ANNEX 3).

The TMG delegation enquired about the possibility of visiting Mohamed Abbou. Members of the delegation were told they needed authorisation to approach the prison gates. Samia Abbou, the wife of Mohammed Abbou, was granted a 15-minute visit.

When pressed about the incident, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights denied harassment.

Arrested on 1 March 2005, Abbou is currently serving a three- and-a-half year prison sentence in connection with articles posted online, in which he criticised Tunisian authorities.

The youth of Zarzis

Since their early release from prison in February 2005, the Zarzis youth have faced a stringent administrative control that prevents them from living a normal life. In fact, the sanction pronounced against them in early 2002 continues, despite their prison terms having ended.

They are obligated to sign a register every day, yet at changing times of the day and/or at changing locations, which represents a serious obstacle for any steady job or professional training. Moreover, pressures are reportedly exerted on current or possible employers to discourage them to keep or recruit the youth. Finally, their being labelled “terrorists” only deepens their exclusion and isolation.

Encountering obstacles and harassment in all aspects of their life over the past two years, the youth feel helpless and deprived of their basic civil rights. Their only request is for an end to the administrative control measures and for the possibility to live normally.

Abdallah Zouari

All of Mr. Zouari’s requests for authorisation to see his wife and children in Tunis for religious holidays were denied. The requests were filed with the appropriate authorities, including the president, Ben Ali.
Mr. Zouari is not allowed to travel outside of the city of Zarsis. (He is not allowed to go to Djerba, for example, 4km from his house.) This administrative control has been in effect since June 2002 and should end in June this year.

Mr. Zouari is forbidden to have an Internet connection as of April 2005 and is refused connection at Internet cafés, the owners of which are reportedly pressured to deny him access.

2. Internet blocking

In past reports of the IFEX-TMG we observed blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafés.

We recommended that the Tunisian government stop the practice of blocking websites and cease putting Internet cafés and Internet users under police surveillance.

At the time of this latest report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendations.

We therefore maintain these recommendations and specifically, we recommend the amendment of Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the printer’s obligation to present copies of any printed book to the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies.

We have discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government representatives and with government supported civil society organisations. They confirmed to us that systematic Internet blocking takes place. However government representatives asserted that blocking of political and information sites was due to their “terrorist” or “hate speech” content. Government officials were unable to describe any judicial or regulatory process that would enable such assertions to be legitimately challenged in law.
In January 2005 we identified a sample of 20 sites that we assessed to be blocked for their political and information content and which did not appear to carry any information which could be considered illegal or harmful under international law. In September 2005 we undertook further tests of the 20 sample sites. We found that 19 of the sites identified remained blocked in the tests that we conducted. In February 2007 we conducted a similar research on a sample of 21 websites. (Please see ANNEX 5 for the full list of 21 blocked sites as of 28 February 2007.)
The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), a non-approved organisation, listed several forms of harassment, including the confiscation of e-mails. CNLT Internet access, which is usually blocked, was again available starting a few days before the TMG mission to Tunisia.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), an approved association, reported that their Internet Access had been blocked for months since April 2006. Access has been re-established quite recently. However, attachments cannot be downloaded. (This is true for all NGOs.)

In addition, the website of the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia  (OLPEC) remains blocked.

Access to the website of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés  (FDTL), a political party created in 1994 and approved in 2002, remains blocked as well. The website of the Parti démocratique progressiste (PDP) is also blocked.

3. Censorship of books

In past reports of the IFEX-TMG we observed blocking of the distribution of books and publications.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to release banned books, end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression.

At the time of this latest report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendation.

We therefore maintain these recommendations and specifically we recommend to amend Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the obligation (for the printer) to deposit copies of a printed book with the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies.

The dépôt légal system is still shamelessly used as a hidden form of censorship of books in Tunisia. In a country that prides itself on producing 1,400 titles a year for a population of just over ten million, there are actually only 200-300 new titles produced per year; the rest are mainly reprints and children’s books.

Publishers which dare to publish books the authorities disapprove of not only see these books being blocked at the printer’s (after having been printed), but also have to face other forms of harassment, including forms of fiscal harassment. For more, see the first IFEX-TMG report.

Three books by Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, founder of the Temimi Foundation (FTRSI ), have been printed and then blocked through the legal submission procedure: his book on censorship has been banned since 2000, and his books on President Habib Bourguiba and on the society of knowledge since 2003. The national library of Tunisia provides no reason, nor answer for these bans. In addition, the distribution of the proceedings of four conferences on censorship organised by FTRSI are also blocked through the legal submission procedure. As a consequence, the publication of these proceedings takes place in another country of the region.

In addition, the distribution of the proceedings of four conferences on censorship organised by FTRSI are also blocked through the legal submission procedure. As a consequence, the publication of these proceedings may take place in another country of the region.

According to the League of Free Writers (LEL), the situation for book publishing in the country has worsened since WSIS in 2005. Three examples of recent book blocking were given:

a.    Portrait of a businessman who succeeded by Mr. Hamdouni, Vice-President of LEL. Initially, an authorisation to publish the novel was issued in November 2006. A few days later, a group of plainclothes policemen stormed the printer’s in order to seize the books, which had been printed, and to seize the receipt authorising the publication. According to LEL, this was the first time this had happened.
b.    The Rocking Chair by Amel Mokhtar, a young Tunisian female writer. The second novel by this author is denied publication and distribution through the legal submission procedure. The content of this book is deemed to be too morally controversial. Her first and third novels are freely available.
c.    Justice by Falilah Chebbi, a famous Tunisian poet who has published some 20 books. In Justice, she condemns Arab regimes for spending too much money on armaments, and not enough on social welfare. The book has been blocked at the printer’s since spring 2006.

In addition, three of Jalloul Azzouna’s books are still blocked through the legal submission procedure.

Hafidha Chekir, a member of the Board of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), tried to have her PhD on the role of law in the promotion of women’s rights published by the University Press (a text for which she received the Human Rights Prize of the French Society of International Law), but this was refused. She tried to self-publish later, but the book was blocked through the legal submission procedure. Her guide on the participation of women in political life is also blocked through the legal submission procedure. It is one of the ten blocked books by the Arabic Institute of Human Rights.

The proceedings of ATFD’s November 1993 seminar on violence against women are still blocked through the legal submission procedure.

OLPEC, which issues reports and alerts whenever it finds out a book is being blocked through the legal submission procedure, issued a report on the 2006 Tunis Book Fair. The Tunisian authorities issued a list of banned books in anticipation of the fair. (For more, please see ANNEX 4).

Theatre – Khamsoun

Khamsoun (corps otage), which translates as Fifty, is a play by the famous Tunisian playwright Fadhel Jaibi. The Tunisian authorities first refused to issue a permission to show the play.  However, after successfully being performed abroad, including a performance in Paris, the authorities found no alternative but to allow it to be performed. This came after six months of prohibition by the commission of censorship of the Ministry of the Culture, which had drawn up a list of phrases to be censored. However, those involved in Khamsoun had refused to subject the play to this list.

The play addresses the problems facing Tunisian society after 50 years of independence, including torture in prisons, fundamentalism and lack of civil and political freedoms.  The play itself became the target of such lack of freedoms as a result of heavy censorship. The authorities attended the rehearsals of the play and censored all names of prisons, all dates and many Quranic verses used in the play. After months of negotiations, even though the director refused to comply, the authorities decided to allow the play to run, but only during the week. The play is not allowed to be performed during the weekend, and there were few performances in Tunisia in February 2007.

4. Independent organisations

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed restrictions on freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be legally established and to hold meetings.

We then recommended that the Tunisian government to respect international standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and that they grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups.  The second report documented no progress on our recommendations. During the fourth mission we documented a series of new attacks on legally recognised, independent organisations, such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), The Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) and the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women (ATFD).

Severe harassment of these organisations, including smear-campaigns in the media, and other problems facing these legal organisations, has resulted in an almost complete state of inactivity.  The Tunisian authorities have made certain that these organisations are not able to work.  Funds are blocked, Internet and e-mail is blocked or monitored, phone lines are disconnected and cell phones monitored and regular mail service is stopped. In short, they are unable to carry out the work they have previously been legally authorised to do. These attacks represent a serious deterioration in respect for freedom of association.

We therefore strongly reiterate our recommendation that the Tunisian government must allow legal NGOs to work, and must   allow independent organisations to be established without requiring prior political approval.

The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT)

The surveillance is the same every day. The same team of police monitors all the traffic in and out of the CNLT office, and often is seen in the shops close to the CNLT office. Since 2004, CNLT has not been able to hold its annual congress. CNLT cannot make any collective decisions or make changes to its board. It is impossible for the organisation to hold even small meetings because all meetings, even meetings of the board, are prohibited.

CNLT submitted an appeal to become a legal organisation before an administrative court in March 1999, but there is still no reply.

According to CNLT, some visitors to the CNLT offices, who come to lodge complaints about harassment, are stopped by the police, taken to the police station and forced to sign a document stating they will never return to CNLT again.

In addition, CNLT has seemingly become the target of a new form of harassment, i.e. fiscal harassment. As CNLT is not officially recognised, its offices are located in the apartment of an individual, Mr. Omar Mestiri, who faces fiscal harassment from the tax office for the period during which he was under house arrest and the period during which he has been residing abroad. As a member of the editorial board of Kalima newspaper, this harassment has potentially bad consequences for Kalima, which aims to be an independent voice in the Tunisian print media.  The closure of Kalima would be a terrible blow to pluralism in a country where the print media already suffers from its lack of pluralism.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH)

All the local offices of the League are under police surveillance. The situation has worsened since WSIS in late 2005. The board of LTDH can meet, but LTDH is not allowed to arrange congresses and training sessions. Since April 2006, there have been no further meetings. LTDH does not receive regular mail, and since 5 July 2006 e-mail and all Internet access have been blocked. There are daily campaigns against the League in the media and the League’s President, Mokhtar Trifi, has been insulted in Parliament as a “spy” for the USA. There is not one week, according to Mr. Trifi, that the League does not get attacked, including on television.

The authorities do not want to shut down the League. Simply put, their goal is to prevent the League from carrying on its activities, according to Souhayr Belhassen, Vice-President of the League.

On 30 October 2006, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a verbal note to all embassies in Tunisia. The note reminded the representatives of foreign governments in Tunisia that the League could not lead any activities because of the pending trials,  adding that it can only hold a congress. This verbal note followed two aborted visits to the LTDH section of Bizerte by the American authorities. A reminder was sent to all foreign missions on 1 December 2006 as a significant number of diplomats showed solidarity by visiting the League headquarters following the first note of 30 October. Support by some foreign diplomats has had a tendency to wane since WSIS.

On 17 February 2007, in full contradiction of the verbal notes issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the verdict was delivered in the latest of a long series of trials pending against the League. The convocation of the Board, which intended to hold the congress of the League in September 2005 and in May 2006, was cancelled. In other words, LTDH is now forbidden to hold its congress.

It seems to us that the Tunisian authorities have been conveying the following contradictory message: The only activity LTDH is allowed to do is to prepare for its congress, yet it is not allowed to actually hold it. The Tunisian authorities are therefore trying to turn the oldest human rights organisation in the African continent and the Arab world into an empty shell.
The TMG remains deeply concerned about the intense political pressure that is being placed on the independent LTDH by the authorities and by people close to the ruling party.
The Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC)

The organisation is concerned that the conditions of freedom of expression in Tunisia have worsened since WSIS.  They are concerned that authorities will use the events of December 2006  as a reason to increase pressure on civil society. The fact that the organisation still exists is in itself an achievement. OLPEC submitted an appeal to become a legal organisation before an administrative court in 2001, but there is still no reply. Consequently, OLPEC is still not legal and cannot have offices, or open a bank account. OLPEC is officially non-existent.

Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)

Like LTDH, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) is one the few legally approved and independent NGOs in the country.

ATFD’s new President, Mrs. Khedija Cherif, told TMG mission members that members of the Association are increasingly harassed. A new form of harassment includes the exclusion of Academic members of the Association from academic conferences. The Faculty of Law of Sfax even cancelled a conference once to avoid participation of a member of the Association. In international meetings (ATDF can participate in such meetings unlike CNLT or OLPEC for instance), members of the Association are verbally targeted by the representatives of the official associations.

According to ATFD, post-WSIS repression has deepened, and grown more perverse and more diverse. In addition to the usual forms of harassment against the association that had been used pre-WSIS (police surveillance, exclusion from the media, smear campaigns in the media targeting the Association etc.), a new form of harassment has emerged following WSIS: economic harassment via the blocking of the association’s finances. The third part of the European Union (EU) funding, channelled through the Friedrich Naumann foundation as part of the “equality” project is blocked by the Tunisian authorities as of May 2006. AFTD wrote to the Ministry of the Interior several times to enquire about the blocking (September 2006, November 2006 and January 2007), but so far to no avail. When EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner questioned the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs about the blocking on 1 February 2007, the latter said he did not know about it.

In June 2006 ATFD was forced to hold its congress at its headquarters. As usual, it was not possible for the association to rent a room in town.

5. Journalists and dissidents

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment, intimidation and interception of communications.  At the time of the second report we had witnessed no progress on our recommendations. As of March 2007 the situation has worsened, in particular with regard to the increased harassment of independent Tunisian journalists. We therefore strongly reiterate our concern about systematic harassment of journalists, activists and dissidents, and urge that immediate steps be taken to remove political surveillance and harassment of individuals engaged in the legitimate defence of human rights and the right to freedom of expression.

At the time of this latest report, we further recommend the EU make broader use of the 2004 guidelines on human rights defenders.
See: http://ue.eu.int/uedocs/cmsUpload/GuidelinesDefenders.pdf

The recent mission of the TMG shed light on the absence of positive progress for journalists and human rights activists in Tunisia.  Both groups are being systematically harassed by the authorities through the withholding of mail and e-mail, through arbitrary travel bans and through interference by government employees in their private lives, including surveillance and harassment which often also extends to their families and friends.

Independent journalists like Lotfi Hajji are not able to work freely as foreign correspondents. The recent publication of articles by journalist Taoufik Ben Brik were the first published in Tunisia by him since 1989, and these appeared in a newly-established private paper. Activists are not allowed to work in Tunisia at all and are dependant on financial support from other sources in order to lead a normal life.

6. Press Freedom

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.  At the time of the second report we witnessed a step in the right direction through the 27 May 2005 announcement to abolish the «dépôt légal» for periodicals, but there was no other progress on our recommendations. At the time of the present report, there is still no press freedom in Tunisia, the main reasons being state censorship, lack of open distribution networks comprising all printed media, and a serious one-sided distribution of financial resources. We therefore reiterate our previous recommendations by asking the Tunisian government to take serious steps toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press. Furthermore, we urge the government to abolish the «dépôt légal» for foreign newspapers.  We also call on the Ministry of the Interior to respect Article 13 of the Tunisian Press Code enabling the establishment of newspapers and periodicals.

Newspapers, both local and international, are still being censored. During the mission, two French dailies (Le Monde and Libération) and one weekly news magazine (Le Nouvel Observateur) were banned in Tunisia for publishing articles written by Mr. Ben Brik that upset the authorities. In the case of Libération, the article was ironically entitled: “En 2009, je ‘vote’ pour Ben Ali” (“In 2009, I ‘vote’ for Ben Ali”). Mr. Ben Brik has been widely published abroad, but de facto banned in his home country.

Distribution is casual and favours newspapers close to the authorities. Readers have to ask for opposition papers in the kiosks, as the vendors are not likely to display them so that people can see them, but instead store them under the counter. These obstacles to distribution are designed to isolate the opposition from the population, and are meant to hinder the accessibility of non-controlled content and information to Tunisian citizens.

One newspaper editor stated to the group during the mission: «You just have to open the pages of a newspaper to see if it is government controlled – the ones controlled by the government have all the advertising.»

Even journalists in the official press are censored. An article entitled «Bayrou le candidat du bon sens» was reportedly censored by the editorial team in the government-controlled French-speaking newspaper La Presse.

7. Torture, brutality and impunity

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we reported credible accounts of recent use of torture by the security services with impunity.

We recommended the Tunisian government allow independent investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

At the time of the second report we had witnessed some progress on prison conditions, but no real progress on our main recommendation. Despite some progress, prison conditions also remained a source of major concern.

The recent TMG mission witnessed no positive development.  On the contrary, police brutality is becoming an almost daily event in the public spaces and people are becoming increasingly frightened.

On this basis, we therefore restate our previous recommendation and urge the Tunisian government to make every effort to completely eliminate the practice of torture by the security services.

8. The judiciary

The lack of an independent judiciary and an almost total lack of a normal rule of law are considered to be major problems in Tunisian society, a fact that was confirmed by several different sources during the mission.  According to the same sources, the majority of Tunisian lawyers, judges and magistrates are in favour of an independent judiciary, but a small group of people with strong ties to the president is very active and controls the whole system, thus creating a climate of fear in the society.

Some of the elements leading to this situation are arbitrary arrests and lack of information for families of the arrested, but also undemocratic treatment of judges through arbitrary relocation and harassment.

Based on these facts we urge the Tunisian authorities to bring their legal system in accordance with international standards of an independent judiciary and to respect the rule of law as a way to strengthen freedom of expression.

C.    CONCLUSIONS

During the recent mission (27 February to 4 March 2007) and undertaking of the work for this report, it became evident that no significant, positive development had occurred for freedom of expression in Tunisia since the WSIS in November 2005. On the contrary, reports indicate a stalemate in most domains and deterioration in others. Interviewees reported an increased resort to intimidation and violence, and the impossibility of challenging such abusive practices. As stated in the introduction, lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. They have also tried to discredit our work and that of IFEX in general as one-sided and biased, partly because we, as they claim, have refused to meet with Tunisian civil society groups who do not share our views on Tunisia.  This is not true .

It is also worth noting that the TMG, on previous missions, have met with Tunisian authorities at the ministerial level.  The TMG would hereby like to voice its disappointment at the Tunisian authorities’ unwillingness to arrange meetings with ministers during this recent mission.

With this as background material, we take this opportunity to remind all readers of this report that we are merely asking Tunisian authorities to abide by their international human rights obligations, as well as to their commitments as reported in the WSIS final documents.  Basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, movement and association, and the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and to create organisations without government interference, do not exist in Tunisia. These rights are respected in democratic countries where the rule of law prevails.

Sadly, this is not the case in Tunisia either.  The TMG therefore has to conclude that it is still increasingly important that international free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large – with the EU bearing a significant responsibility – still keep monitoring development in Tunisia.

Oslo – Geneva – Paris – Amsterdam – Cairo

Read the whole report with annexes at  http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/IFEXTMGreport_April2007.doc

Fjerde Tunisia-rapport: «Beleiringen fortsetter»

PRESS RELEASE

Fourth TMG Report Launched Worldwide − “Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds”

In its fourth report on freedom of expression conditions in Tunisia, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) concludes that it is still increasingly important that free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large still keep monitoring developments in Tunisia.

“Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds” is the fourth TMG report since February 2005 and is based on a recent (28 February – 4 March) mission to Tunisia.  The report will be launched worldwide on 11 April at a press conference in Cairo hosted by the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), as well as at an event hosted by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) in Washington. The report, available in English, French and Arabic, will also be launched in Geneva and Paris.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. The new report states that “lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.” This includes calling for the liberation of unjustly jailed human rights activist and lawyer Mohamed Abbou.

The TMG is a group of 16 freedom of expression organisations in the IFEX network.  The recent mission was chaired by Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN. Other members of the delegation were Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association (IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely.

For further information about the report, contact:

Carl Morten Iversen, Norwegian PEN, at tel: + 47 2247 9220/926 88 023 or e-mail: cmivers@online.noor pen@norskpen.no (English)
Alexis Krikorian, IPA, at tel: + 41 22830 1080/7921 45 530 or e-mail: krikorian@ipa-uie.org (English or French)
Gamal Eid, HRinfo, at tel: +202 524 9544 (Arabic) or e-mail: info@hrinfo.net orgamal4eid@yahoo.com

Members of the IFEX-TMG are:

Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), The Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers’ Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK

Tunisia, April 2007: The Siege holds

Report of the
Tunisia Monitoring Group
Freedom of Expression in Tunisia:

The Siege Holds
April 2007

CONTENTS:

A.    Introduction                                    p. 3
B.    Facts on the ground
1. Prisoners of opinion                        p. 5
2. Internet blocking                            p. 7
3. Censorship of books                       p. 8
4. Independent organisations              p. 10
5. Journalists and dissidents                p. 13
6. Press freedom                                p. 15
7. Torture, police brutality and impunity        p. 16
8. The judiciary                                  p. 16

C.    Conclusions                                    p. 17

D.    Annexes                                         p. 19

A.    INTRODUCTION:
This is the fourth report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) and follows the latest of a series of fact-finding missions to Tunisia by members of the group in the run up to, and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The first mission, of six TMG members, took place from 14-19 January 2005 and led to the first report “Tunisia: Freedom of Expression Under Siege” , published in February 2005. The report described our initial findings and set out a series of recommendations to the Tunisian government.

Subsequent missions took place in May and September 2005 and in April 2006.  For mission reports, see: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/reports.html

TMG members actively took part in WSIS itself (16-18 November 2005).

During the course of the five missions the TMG has now met with over 300 individuals and over 50 organisations and institutions including members of the government and opposition, public officials, government supported organisations, independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, publishers, librarians, private broadcasters and others.

During the latest mission we met with a representative of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Surprisingly, the Director of the External Communications Agency (ATCE) refused to meet with us this time.

Since WSIS, and since the last TMG report issued in May 2006, we have disappointingly witnessed serious deterioration in the conditions related to freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly with respect to independent organisations, harassment of journalists and dissidents, independence of the judiciary, blocking of books and websites, and the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles on the Internet. Cumulatively these changes lead us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissent since May 2006.

We urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the recommendations we are making in this report and to show a real and immediate intent to remove the practices we have identified that violate international human rights laws and standards to which Tunisia is a signatory.

We call on the international community to take responsibility in holding Tunisia to account for its international obligations, to insist on real commitment to change and to ensure that independent voices in Tunisia are treated with the respect and tolerance of a rights-based democracy and not the abuses that we consider more characteristic of a police state.

In the following sections we set out the principal developments that we have observed since our first report.

About the Tunisia Monitoring Group
The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is a coalition of 16 organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 16 organisations are all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of 71 national, regional and international organisations committed to defending the right to freedom of expression.

The sixth mission of the TMG in Tunisia (27 February – 4 March 2007) was comprised of Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN, Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association(IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely. (Gamal Eid of the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo) was denied an entry visa to join the TMG mission in April 2006.)

Other members of the TMG are: Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), International PEN Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), International Press Institute (IPI), Journaliste en Danger (JED), Media Institute of South Africa (MISA), World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).
B.    FACTS ON THE GROUND
1. Prisoners of opinion           

We strongly reiterate past recommendations to Tunisian authorities:

* To end arbitrary administrative sanctions compelling journalist Abdallah Zouari to live nearly 500km away from his wife and children and guarantee his basic right to freedom of movement and expression.

* To release all prisoners of opinion held for their religious and political beliefs and who never advocated or used violence.

Furthermore we call for the immediate release of human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou.

Mohamed Abbou
On 1 March 2007, men who refused to identify themselves physically prevented the members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) delegation from entering a street in the town of Le Kef; the prison where human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou is jailed is located on the street to which they were denied access. A second group of men photographed the TMG delegation from a distance, and members of the TMG delegation were prevented from taking their own photographs by the same men. The delegation’s car had previously been stopped on the road to Le Kef for about ten minutes by a group of national guard officers plainclothed men, who also refused to identify themselves (for more, please see ANNEX 3).

The TMG delegation enquired about the possibility of visiting Mohamed Abbou. Members of the delegation were told they needed authorisation to approach the prison gates. Samia Abbou, the wife of Mohammed Abbou, was granted a 15-minute visit.

When pressed about the incident, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights denied harassment.

Arrested on 1 March 2005, Abbou is currently serving a three- and-a-half year prison sentence in connection with articles posted online, in which he criticised Tunisian authorities.

The youth of Zarzis
Since their early release from prison in February 2005, the Zarzis youth have faced a stringent administrative control that prevents them from living a normal life. In fact, the sanction pronounced against them in early 2002 continues, despite their prison terms having ended.

They are obligated to sign a register every day, yet at changing times of the day and/or at changing locations, which represents a serious obstacle for any steady job or professional training. Moreover, pressures are reportedly exerted on current or possible employers to discourage them to keep or recruit the youth. Finally, their being labelled “terrorists” only deepens their exclusion and isolation.

Encountering obstacles and harassment in all aspects of their life over the past two years, the youth feel helpless and deprived of their basic civil rights. Their only request is for an end to the administrative control measures and for the possibility to live normally.

Abdallah Zouari
All of Mr. Zouari’s requests for authorisation to see his wife and children in Tunis for religious holidays were denied. The requests were filed with the appropriate authorities, including the president, Ben Ali.
Mr. Zouari is not allowed to travel outside of the city of Zarsis. (He is not allowed to go to Djerba, for example, 4km from his house.) This administrative control has been in effect since June 2002 and should end in June this year.

Mr. Zouari is forbidden to have an Internet connection as of April 2005 and is refused connection at Internet cafés, the owners of which are reportedly pressured to deny him access.
2. Internet blocking
In past reports of the IFEX-TMG we observed blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafés.

We recommended that the Tunisian government stop the practice of blocking websites and cease putting Internet cafés and Internet users under police surveillance.

At the time of this latest report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendations.

We therefore maintain these recommendations and specifically, we recommend the amendment of Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the printer’s obligation to present copies of any printed book to the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies.

We have discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government representatives and with government supported civil society organisations. They confirmed to us that systematic Internet blocking takes place. However government representatives asserted that blocking of political and information sites was due to their “terrorist” or “hate speech” content. Government officials were unable to describe any judicial or regulatory process that would enable such assertions to be legitimately challenged in law.

In January 2005 we identified a sample of 20 sites that we assessed to be blocked for their political and information content and which did not appear to carry any information which could be considered illegal or harmful under international law. In September 2005 we undertook further tests of the 20 sample sites. We found that 19 of the sites identified remained blocked in the tests that we conducted. In February 2007 we conducted a similar research on a sample of 21 websites. (Please see ANNEX 5 for the full list of 21 blocked sites as of 28 February 2007.)

The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), a non-approved organisation, listed several forms of harassment, including the confiscation of e-mails. CNLT Internet access, which is usually blocked, was again available starting a few days before the TMG mission to Tunisia.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), an approved association, reported that their Internet Access had been blocked for months since April 2006. Access has been re-established quite recently. However, attachments cannot be downloaded. (This is true for all NGOs.)

In addition, the website of the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia  (OLPEC) remains blocked.

Access to the website of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés  (FDTL), a political party created in 1994 and approved in 2002, remains blocked as well. The website of the Parti démocratique progressiste (PDP) is also blocked.

3. Censorship of books
In past reports of the IFEX-TMG we observed blocking of the distribution of books and publications.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to release banned books, end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression.

At the time of this latest report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendation.

We therefore maintain these recommendations and specifically we recommend to amend Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the obligation (for the printer) to deposit copies of a printed book with the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies.

The dépôt légal system is still shamelessly used as a hidden form of censorship of books in Tunisia. In a country that prides itself on producing 1,400 titles a year for a population of just over ten million, there are actually only 200-300 new titles produced per year; the rest are mainly reprints and children’s books.

Publishers which dare to publish books the authorities disapprove of not only see these books being blocked at the printer’s (after having been printed), but also have to face other forms of harassment, including forms of fiscal harassment. For more, see the first IFEX-TMG report.

Three books by Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, founder of the Temimi Foundation (FTRSI ), have been printed and then blocked through the legal submission procedure: his book on censorship has been banned since 2000, and his books on President Habib Bourguiba and on the society of knowledge since 2003. The national library of Tunisia provides no reason, nor answer for these bans. In addition, the distribution of the proceedings of four conferences on censorship organised by FTRSI are also blocked through the legal submission procedure. As a consequence, the publication of these proceedings takes place in another country of the region.

In addition, the distribution of the proceedings of four conferences on censorship organised by FTRSI are also blocked through the legal submission procedure. As a consequence, the publication of these proceedings may take place in another country of the region.

According to the League of Free Writers (LEL), the situation for book publishing in the country has worsened since WSIS in 2005. Three examples of recent book blocking were given:

a.    Portrait of a businessman who succeeded by Mr. Hamdouni, Vice-President of LEL. Initially, an authorisation to publish the novel was issued in November 2006. A few days later, a group of plainclothes policemen stormed the printer’s in order to seize the books, which had been printed, and to seize the receipt authorising the publication. According to LEL, this was the first time this had happened.
b.    The Rocking Chair by Amel Mokhtar, a young Tunisian female writer. The second novel by this author is denied publication and distribution through the legal submission procedure. The content of this book is deemed to be too morally controversial. Her first and third novels are freely available.
c.    Justice by Falilah Chebbi, a famous Tunisian poet who has published some 20 books. In Justice, she condemns Arab regimes for spending too much money on armaments, and not enough on social welfare. The book has been blocked at the printer’s since spring 2006.

In addition, three of Jalloul Azzouna’s books are still blocked through the legal submission procedure.

Hafidha Chekir, a member of the Board of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), tried to have her PhD on the role of law in the promotion of women’s rights published by the University Press (a text for which she received the Human Rights Prize of the French Society of International Law), but this was refused. She tried to self-publish later, but the book was blocked through the legal submission procedure. Her guide on the participation of women in political life is also blocked through the legal submission procedure. It is one of the ten blocked books by the Arabic Institute of Human Rights.

The proceedings of ATFD’s November 1993 seminar on violence against women are still blocked through the legal submission procedure.

OLPEC, which issues reports and alerts whenever it finds out a book is being blocked through the legal submission procedure, issued a report on the 2006 Tunis Book Fair. The Tunisian authorities issued a list of banned books in anticipation of the fair. (For more, please see ANNEX 4).

Theatre – Khamsoun
Khamsoun (corps otage), which translates as Fifty, is a play by the famous Tunisian playwright Fadhel Jaibi. The Tunisian authorities first refused to issue a permission to show the play.  However, after successfully being performed abroad, including a performance in Paris, the authorities found no alternative but to allow it to be performed. This came after six months of prohibition by the commission of censorship of the Ministry of the Culture, which had drawn up a list of phrases to be censored. However, those involved in Khamsoun had refused to subject the play to this list.

The play addresses the problems facing Tunisian society after 50 years of independence, including torture in prisons, fundamentalism and lack of civil and political freedoms.  The play itself became the target of such lack of freedoms as a result of heavy censorship. The authorities attended the rehearsals of the play and censored all names of prisons, all dates and many Quranic verses used in the play. After months of negotiations, even though the director refused to comply, the authorities decided to allow the play to run, but only during the week. The play is not allowed to be performed during the weekend, and there were few performances in Tunisia in February 2007.

4. Independent organisations
In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed restrictions on freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be legally established and to hold meetings.

We then recommended that the Tunisian government to respect international standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and that they grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups.  The second report documented no progress on our recommendations. During the fourth mission we documented a series of new attacks on legally recognised, independent organisations, such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), The Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) and the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women (ATFD).

Severe harassment of these organisations, including smear-campaigns in the media, and other problems facing these legal organisations, has resulted in an almost complete state of inactivity.  The Tunisian authorities have made certain that these organisations are not able to work.  Funds are blocked, Internet and e-mail is blocked or monitored, phone lines are disconnected and cell phones monitored and regular mail service is stopped. In short, they are unable to carry out the work they have previously been legally authorised to do. These attacks represent a serious deterioration in respect for freedom of association.

We therefore strongly reiterate our recommendation that the Tunisian government must allow legal NGOs to work, and must   allow independent organisations to be established without requiring prior political approval.

The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT)
The surveillance is the same every day. The same team of police monitors all the traffic in and out of the CNLT office, and often is seen in the shops close to the CNLT office. Since 2004, CNLT has not been able to hold its annual congress. CNLT cannot make any collective decisions or make changes to its board. It is impossible for the organisation to hold even small meetings because all meetings, even meetings of the board, are prohibited.

CNLT submitted an appeal to become a legal organisation before an administrative court in March 1999, but there is still no reply.

According to CNLT, some visitors to the CNLT offices, who come to lodge complaints about harassment, are stopped by the police, taken to the police station and forced to sign a document stating they will never return to CNLT again.

In addition, CNLT has seemingly become the target of a new form of harassment, i.e. fiscal harassment. As CNLT is not officially recognised, its offices are located in the apartment of an individual, Mr. Omar Mestiri, who faces fiscal harassment from the tax office for the period during which he was under house arrest and the period during which he has been residing abroad. As a member of the editorial board of Kalima newspaper, this harassment has potentially bad consequences for Kalima, which aims to be an independent voice in the Tunisian print media.  The closure of Kalima would be a terrible blow to pluralism in a country where the print media already suffers from its lack of pluralism.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH)
All the local offices of the League are under police surveillance. The situation has worsened since WSIS in late 2005. The board of LTDH can meet, but LTDH is not allowed to arrange congresses and training sessions. Since April 2006, there have been no further meetings. LTDH does not receive regular mail, and since 5 July 2006 e-mail and all Internet access have been blocked. There are daily campaigns against the League in the media and the League’s President, Mokhtar Trifi, has been insulted in Parliament as a “spy” for the USA. There is not one week, according to Mr. Trifi, that the League does not get attacked, including on television.

The authorities do not want to shut down the League. Simply put, their goal is to prevent the League from carrying on its activities, according to Souhayr Belhassen, Vice-President of the League.

On 30 October 2006, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a verbal note to all embassies in Tunisia. The note reminded the representatives of foreign governments in Tunisia that the League could not lead any activities because of the pending trials,  adding that it can only hold a congress. This verbal note followed two aborted visits to the LTDH section of Bizerte by the American authorities. A reminder was sent to all foreign missions on 1 December 2006 as a significant number of diplomats showed solidarity by visiting the League headquarters following the first note of 30 October. Support by some foreign diplomats has had a tendency to wane since WSIS.

On 17 February 2007, in full contradiction of the verbal notes issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the verdict was delivered in the latest of a long series of trials pending against the League. The convocation of the Board, which intended to hold the congress of the League in September 2005 and in May 2006, was cancelled. In other words, LTDH is now forbidden to hold its congress.

It seems to us that the Tunisian authorities have been conveying the following contradictory message: The only activity LTDH is allowed to do is to prepare for its congress, yet it is not allowed to actually hold it. The Tunisian authorities are therefore trying to turn the oldest human rights organisation in the African continent and the Arab world into an empty shell.
The TMG remains deeply concerned about the intense political pressure that is being placed on the independent LTDH by the authorities and by people close to the ruling party.

The Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC)
The organisation is concerned that the conditions of freedom of expression in Tunisia have worsened since WSIS.  They are concerned that authorities will use the events of December 2006  as a reason to increase pressure on civil society. The fact that the organisation still exists is in itself an achievement. OLPEC submitted an appeal to become a legal organisation before an administrative court in 2001, but there is still no reply. Consequently, OLPEC is still not legal and cannot have offices, or open a bank account. OLPEC is officially non-existent.

Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)
Like LTDH, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) is one the few legally approved and independent NGOs in the country.

ATFD’s new President, Mrs. Khedija Cherif, told TMG mission members that members of the Association are increasingly harassed. A new form of harassment includes the exclusion of Academic members of the Association from academic conferences. The Faculty of Law of Sfax even cancelled a conference once to avoid participation of a member of the Association. In international meetings (ATDF can participate in such meetings unlike CNLT or OLPEC for instance), members of the Association are verbally targeted by the representatives of the official associations.

According to ATFD, post-WSIS repression has deepened, and grown more perverse and more diverse. In addition to the usual forms of harassment against the association that had been used pre-WSIS (police surveillance, exclusion from the media, smear campaigns in the media targeting the Association etc.), a new form of harassment has emerged following WSIS: economic harassment via the blocking of the association’s finances. The third part of the European Union (EU) funding, channelled through the Friedrich Naumann foundation as part of the “equality” project is blocked by the Tunisian authorities as of May 2006. AFTD wrote to the Ministry of the Interior several times to enquire about the blocking (September 2006, November 2006 and January 2007), but so far to no avail. When EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner questioned the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs about the blocking on 1 February 2007, the latter said he did not know about it.

In June 2006 ATFD was forced to hold its congress at its headquarters. As usual, it was not possible for the association to rent a room in town.

5. Journalists and dissidents
In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment, intimidation and interception of communications.  At the time of the second report we had witnessed no progress on our recommendations. As of March 2007 the situation has worsened, in particular with regard to the increased harassment of independent Tunisian journalists. We therefore strongly reiterate our concern about systematic harassment of journalists, activists and dissidents, and urge that immediate steps be taken to remove political surveillance and harassment of individuals engaged in the legitimate defence of human rights and the right to freedom of expression.

At the time of this latest report, we further recommend the EU make broader use of the 2004 guidelines on human rights defenders.
See: http://ue.eu.int/uedocs/cmsUpload/GuidelinesDefenders.pdf

The recent mission of the TMG shed light on the absence of positive progress for journalists and human rights activists in Tunisia.  Both groups are being systematically harassed by the authorities through the withholding of mail and e-mail, through arbitrary travel bans and through interference by government employees in their private lives, including surveillance and harassment which often also extends to their families and friends.

Independent journalists like Lotfi Hajji are not able to work freely as foreign correspondents. The recent publication of articles by journalist Taoufik Ben Brik were the first published in Tunisia by him since 1989, and these appeared in a newly-established private paper. Activists are not allowed to work in Tunisia at all and are dependant on financial support from other sources in order to lead a normal life.

6. Press Freedom
In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.  At the time of the second report we witnessed a step in the right direction through the 27 May 2005 announcement to abolish the «dépôt légal» for periodicals, but there was no other progress on our recommendations. At the time of the present report, there is still no press freedom in Tunisia, the main reasons being state censorship, lack of open distribution networks comprising all printed media, and a serious one-sided distribution of financial resources. We therefore reiterate our previous recommendations by asking the Tunisian government to take serious steps toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press. Furthermore, we urge the government to abolish the «dépôt légal» for foreign newspapers.  We also call on the Ministry of the Interior to respect Article 13 of the Tunisian Press Code enabling the establishment of newspapers and periodicals.

Newspapers, both local and international, are still being censored. During the mission, two French dailies (Le Monde and Libération) and one weekly news magazine (Le Nouvel Observateur) were banned in Tunisia for publishing articles written by Mr. Ben Brik that upset the authorities. In the case of Libération, the article was ironically entitled: “En 2009, je ‘vote’ pour Ben Ali” (“In 2009, I ‘vote’ for Ben Ali”). Mr. Ben Brik has been widely published abroad, but de facto banned in his home country.

Distribution is casual and favours newspapers close to the authorities. Readers have to ask for opposition papers in the kiosks, as the vendors are not likely to display them so that people can see them, but instead store them under the counter. These obstacles to distribution are designed to isolate the opposition from the population, and are meant to hinder the accessibility of non-controlled content and information to Tunisian citizens.

One newspaper editor stated to the group during the mission: «You just have to open the pages of a newspaper to see if it is government controlled – the ones controlled by the government have all the advertising.»

Even journalists in the official press are censored. An article entitled «Bayrou le candidat du bon sens» was reportedly censored by the editorial team in the government-controlled French-speaking newspaper La Presse.

7. Torture, brutality and impunity
In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we reported credible accounts of recent use of torture by the security services with impunity.

We recommended the Tunisian government allow independent investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

At the time of the second report we had witnessed some progress on prison conditions, but no real progress on our main recommendation. Despite some progress, prison conditions also remained a source of major concern.

The recent TMG mission witnessed no positive development.  On the contrary, police brutality is becoming an almost daily event in the public spaces and people are becoming increasingly frightened.

On this basis, we therefore restate our previous recommendation and urge the Tunisian government to make every effort to completely eliminate the practice of torture by the security services.

8. The judiciary
The lack of an independent judiciary and an almost total lack of a normal rule of law are considered to be major problems in Tunisian society, a fact that was confirmed by several different sources during the mission.  According to the same sources, the majority of Tunisian lawyers, judges and magistrates are in favour of an independent judiciary, but a small group of people with strong ties to the president is very active and controls the whole system, thus creating a climate of fear in the society.

Some of the elements leading to this situation are arbitrary arrests and lack of information for families of the arrested, but also undemocratic treatment of judges through arbitrary relocation and harassment.

Based on these facts we urge the Tunisian authorities to bring their legal system in accordance with international standards of an independent judiciary and to respect the rule of law as a way to strengthen freedom of expression.

C.    CONCLUSIONS
During the recent mission (27 February to 4 March 2007) and undertaking of the work for this report, it became evident that no significant, positive development had occurred for freedom of expression in Tunisia since the WSIS in November 2005. On the contrary, reports indicate a stalemate in most domains and deterioration in others. Interviewees reported an increased resort to intimidation and violence, and the impossibility of challenging such abusive practices. As stated in the introduction, lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. They have also tried to discredit our work and that of IFEX in general as one-sided and biased, partly because we, as they claim, have refused to meet with Tunisian civil society groups who do not share our views on Tunisia.  This is not true .

It is also worth noting that the TMG, on previous missions, have met with Tunisian authorities at the ministerial level.  The TMG would hereby like to voice its disappointment at the Tunisian authorities’ unwillingness to arrange meetings with ministers during this recent mission.

With this as background material, we take this opportunity to remind all readers of this report that we are merely asking Tunisian authorities to abide by their international human rights obligations, as well as to their commitments as reported in the WSIS final documents.  Basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, movement and association, and the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and to create organisations without government interference, do not exist in Tunisia. These rights are respected in democratic countries where the rule of law prevails.

Sadly, this is not the case in Tunisia either.  The TMG therefore has to conclude that it is still increasingly important that international free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large – with the EU bearing a significant responsibility – still keep monitoring development in Tunisia.

Oslo – Geneva – Paris – Amsterdam – Cairo

11. April 2007

Read the whole report with annexes at http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/IFEXTMGreport_April2007.doc

Tunisia press release: The Siege Holds

PRESS RELEASE

11 April 2007

Fourth TMG Report Launched Worldwide
“Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds”

In its fourth report on freedom of expression conditions in Tunisia, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) concludes that it is still increasingly important that free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large still keep monitoring developments in Tunisia.

“Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds” is the fourth TMG report since February 2005 and is based on a recent (28 February – 4 March) mission to Tunisia.  The report will be launched worldwide on 11 April at a press conference in Cairo hosted by the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), as well as at an event hosted by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) in Washington. The report, available in English, French and Arabic, will also be launched in Geneva and Paris.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. The new report states that “lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.” This includes calling for the liberation of unjustly jailed human rights activist and lawyer Mohamed Abbou.

The TMG is a group of 16 freedom of expression organisations in the IFEX network.  The recent mission was chaired by Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN. Other members of the delegation were Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association (IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely.

The report is available on-line on the TMG websites at:
– English: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/IFEXTMGreport_April2007.doc
– French: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/rapportduIFEXTMG_avril2007.doc
-Arabic: http://www.hrinfo.net/ifex/wsis/

For further information about the report, contact:

Carl Morten Iversen, Norwegian PEN, at tel: + 47 2247 9220/926 88 023 or e-mail:cmivers@online.no or pen@norskpen.no (English)
Alexis Krikorian, IPA, at tel: + 41 22830 1080/7921 45 530 or e-mail: krikorian@ipa-uie.org(English or French)
Gamal Eid, HRinfo, at tel: +202 524 9544 (Arabic) or e-mail: info@hrinfo.net orgamal4eid@yahoo.com

Members of the IFEX-TMG are:

Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), The Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers’ Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK

Tunisia-delegasjon trakassert og fysisk hindret i fengselsbesøk av sivilt politi i Le Kef

Mohammed Abbou Day: TMG delegation blocked and intimidated at prison gate

Earlier today (1. March 2007), the members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group delegation visiting Tunisia (27 February – 4 March) were physically prevented from accessing the street of the prison of the town of Le Kef (170 km south-west of Tunis) where Human Rights lawyer and writer Mohammed Abbou is jailed, by plain clothes men who refused to identify themselves.

A second, more distant, circle of plain clothed men were taking pictures and openly staring at the members of the TMG delegation, thus creating a tense atmosphere. Members of the TMG delegation were prevented from taking pictures by the same men, most likely policemen. The car of the delegation had previously been stopped on the road to Le Kef for about 10 minutes by a group of officers of the national guard and plain clothes men who also refused to identify themselves.

The TMG delegation simply wanted to enquire about a possible visit of Mohammed Abbou. Members of the delegation were told they needed an authorisation to get near the prison gates. Samia Abbou, the wife of Mohammed Abbou, was granted a 15-minute visit.

TMG Chair Carl Morten Iversen declared: “I’m utterly outraged by what happened in Le Kef today. Unidentified men prevented us from accessing the street leading to the prison where Mohammed Abbou, the famous prisoner of opinion, is jailed, thus preventing us even from asking the permission to visit Mohammed Abbou. This is an abuse of power. Tomorrow we will be having a meeting at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights where we will be demanding answers vis-à-vis these events, while reiterating our call for the immediate release of Mohammed Abbou”.

Arrested on 1 March 2005, Abbou is currently serving a three and a half year prison sentence in connection to articles posted online in which he criticised Tunisian authorities.

Abbou was charged under both the press and penal codes for «publishing false reports inclined to disturb the public order,» «insult to the judiciary» and «inciting the population to break the country’s laws». His sentencing was announced on 29 April 2005 and later upheld by an appeals court in a 10 June 2005 hearing that international observers deplored as a «sham trial» during which neither Abbou, nor his lawyers, were allowed to contest the charges against him.

Abbou has been jailed under harsh conditions at El Kef prison. Since his imprisonment, Abbou’s wife and family have been repeatedly harassed and threatened by security forces.

Mohammed Abbou Day: TMG delegation blocked and intimidated at prison gates

Earlier today (1. March 2007), the members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group delegation visiting Tunisia (27 February – 4 March) were physically prevented from accessing the street of the prison of the town of Le Kef (170 km south-west of Tunis) where Human Rights lawyer and writer Mohammed Abbou is jailed, by plain clothes men who refused to identify themselves.

A second, more distant, circle of plain clothed men were taking pictures and openly staring at the members of the TMG delegation, thus creating a tense atmosphere. Members of the TMG delegation were prevented from taking pictures by the same men, most likely policemen. The car of the delegation had previously been stopped on the road to Le Kef for about 10 minutes by a group of officers of the national guard and plain clothes men who also refused to identify themselves.

The TMG delegation simply wanted to enquire about a possible visit of Mohammed Abbou. Members of the delegation were told they needed an authorisation to get near the prison gates. Samia Abbou, the wife of Mohammed Abbou, was granted a 15-minute visit.

TMG Chair Carl Morten Iversen declared: “I’m utterly outraged by what happened in Le Kef today. Unidentified men prevented us from accessing the street leading to the prison where Mohammed Abbou, the famous prisoner of opinion, is jailed, thus preventing us even from asking the permission to visit Mohammed Abbou. This is an abuse of power. Tomorrow we will be having a meeting at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights where we will be demanding answers vis-à-vis these events, while reiterating our call for the immediate release of Mohammed Abbou”.

Arrested on 1 March 2005, Abbou is currently serving a three and a half year prison sentence in connection to articles posted online in which he criticised Tunisian authorities.

Abbou was charged under both the press and penal codes for «publishing false reports inclined to disturb the public order,» «insult to the judiciary» and «inciting the population to break the country’s laws». His sentencing was announced on 29 April 2005 and later upheld by an appeals court in a 10 June 2005 hearing that international observers deplored as a «sham trial» during which neither Abbou, nor his lawyers, were allowed to contest the charges against him.

Abbou has been jailed under harsh conditions at El Kef prison. Since his imprisonment, Abbou’s wife and family have been repeatedly harassed and threatened by security forces.

See also: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg (whose website is still blocked in Tunisia).

2007: Tunisia: Mohammed Abbou

1 mars 2007

Président Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Président de la République
Palais Présidentiel
Tunis
Tunisie

Fax: +216 71 744 721

Monsieur,

Le Comité des Ecrivains en Prison (WiPC) de PEN en Norvège, demande la libération de l’avocat et défendeur des droits de l’homme, Mohammed Abbou, qui avait été arrête le 1 mars 2005, a été jugé et condamné en appel en juin 2005 à trois ans et demi de prison ferme dans le cadre de deux affaires. Il a été condamné à un an et demi de prison pour avoir publié un article sur le site Tunisnews en août 2004, dans lequel il comparait les tortues infligées en Tunisie à des prisonniers politiques aux sévices infligés par des soldats américains a Abou Ghraib. Dans le second dossier, il a été condamné à deux ans de prison pour avoir censément agressé physiquement un de ses confrères lors d’une conférence en 2002.

Selon nos informations, Mohammed Abbou est détenu dans des conditions inhumaines et dégradantes, et il aurait été victime de plusieurs actes d’abus et de harcèlement de la part des gardiens de prison mais aussi des autres prisonniers. Les persécutions se sont étendues à sa famille et sa femme et ses enfants seraient désormais cibles d’actes de harcèlement de la part des autorités tunisiennes, allant jusqu’à l’agression physique et l’étroite surveillance de leur domicile.

PEN Norvège considère que Mohammed Abbou est ciblé par les autorités tunisiennes pour avoir simplement exercé son droit à l’expression libre, en accord avec l’Article 19 du Pacte International relatif aux Droits Civils et Politiques, dont l’état de Tunisie est signataire. PEN en Norvège demande donc aux autorités tunisiennes d’annuler les sentences de prison données à Mohammed Abbou et de le relâcher immédiatement et sans aucune condition.

Je vous prie d’agreer, Monsieur, mes sinseres salutations.

Elisabet W. Middelthon
President, Le Comité des Ecrivains en Prison (WiPC) de PEN en Norvège

Copie :
·       Représentant consulaire tunisien en Norvège
·       Le ministère des affaires étrangères Norvegien
·       Représentant consulaire de Norvège en Tunisie