IFJ Condemns Harassment of Journalists’ Leaders in Tunisia After They Speak Out For Press Freedom

The International Federation of Journalists today condemned the Tunisian authorities for “intimidation and harassment” after journalists’ leaders were taken to task by the country’s intolerant administration because they spoke out in defence of press freedom and journalists’ rights.

The Tunisian authorities took punitive action following statements and reports issued on World Press Freedom Day – May 3rd – in which representatives of journalists expressed concern over problems for media in the country.

“The Tunisian authorities have launched a campaign of harassment against journalists’ representatives, only days after the President’s declarations calling for the unconditional respect of free expression,” said Bertrand Ginet, IFJ Mediterranean Programme Officer. “The crackdown on media representatives carried out in the name of the State targets not only our profession but stands as a direct attack on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression of all Tunisians”.

Lotfi Hajji, President of the new Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate (SJT), was questioned today by the Tunisian police following his participation last Friday in a conference organized in Tunis by local human rights organizations and the publication of the SJT report on the situation of the press in Tunisia on World Press Freedom Day. During the weekend, Hajji was harassed on multiple occasions by police and, according to local sources, only avoided being arrested due to pressure from international representatives from the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) and International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), following the 3 May celebrations.

On 4 May, Hajji was held for more than four hours in the police station of the town of Bizerte. Even though Tunisian Law does not require preliminary authorization for the creation of a trade union, Haji was warned of the “possible consequences” that could result due to his position as the head of an "illegal" trade union and his connections with representatives of the international press. Since the creation of the Syndicate eight months ago, Lotfi Hajji has been barred from working as the Tunis correspondent of the Qatari satellite channel Al-Jazeera.

In a similar fashion, Neji Bghouri, a member of the management Committee of the Association of the Tunisian Journalists (AJT), was summoned to the local station by police in Tunis on 7 May following the publication of the report of the Association of the Tunisian Journalists (AJT) on the press freedom situation in the country. He was kept in custody for almost four hours, while the police refused to issue formal charges against him. According to local sources, Bghouri, like Hajji, faces charges for slander, propaganda, diffusion of false news and public unrest. Tunisian journalists continue to support both reporters, carrying out demonstrations in front of the police department in Tunis.

These events occurred only a few days after the publication of a message by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on May 2 2005 to the Presidents of the Association of Tunisian Journalists and to the Association of Tunisian Newspaper Editors, in which the President outlined his position for the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in November this year. President Ben Ali described the WSIS encounter as "the starting point of a new stage in international relations".

Recalling that "freedom of expression and press freedom are the basic rights for the individual as well as the community", President Ben Ali expressed his aspiration to build up "a country where freedom of press is progressively enhanced, where freedom of expression carries a dignified and noble significance and where journalism dwells in the due place it deserves and is supported by a free media".

These declarations were followed by the publication of an international mission report by the International Federation of the Humans Rights, the World Organization Against Torture and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development which details the range of pressures currently directed against Tunisian journalists (Report 418, May 2005):

  • Administrative harassment: "work stoppages, illegal searches and interrogations, confiscation of passports, shortage of professional press cards for foreign correspondents, censorship of publication and distribution of reports, prohibition of films, etc"

  • Economic harassment: "Several press organisations had to lay off journalists following pressures and/or sanctions against their staff who expressed critical opinions or who work actively in the defence of human rights"

  • Physical harassment: "Various acts of aggression against journalists committed by police (destructions of cars, arbitrary arrests, insults, man-handling and murder attempts)"

  • Legal harassment: "Several lawsuits were brought forward and validated by the judiciary to sanction newspapers and journalists whose only wrong was to have expressed an opinion"

    “The detention of journalists’ representatives is in direct contradiction with article 8 of the Tunisian Constitution and article 242 of the Labour Code,” said Ginet. "The scope of the pressures directed against the profession calls for an international reaction and a reflection on the effective sense of hosting the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.

    The IFJ is calling on the Tunisian authorities to immediately release all journalists’ representatives and to respect the basic human rights of the Tunisian people.

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    The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries