Freedom House is an independent non-governmental organisation that monitors political rights and civil liberties around the world, and ranks countries according to their degree of political freedom. Its latest report for 2007 found that ‘Tunisia, long one of the region’s most repressive states, experienced a decline in political rights due to credible reports of rampant corruption involving the family of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.’
Tunisia was a French protectorate from 1881 to 1956, and became a republic in 1957. Habib Bourguiba, who led the independence movement, was its first president. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then prime minister, replaced the aged Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, and has remained in power ever since.
Ben Ali has presided over a period of successful economic and social development, with per capita income increasing steadily over the past two decades. Tunisia now has fairly low rates of poverty, and its literacy and education levels are considered high for the developing world. But these successes are marred by the severe restrictions on individual liberties, particularly freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of association.
In LR March 2006 I wrote about human rights lawyer Mohammed Abbou, who spent twenty-eight months in prison for writing an article on the Internet that denounced torture in Tunisia. Abbou, now free, is defending another journalist whose critical writings have landed him in trouble. On 18 January 2008, the Tunisian appeals court upheld the one-year prison sentence handed down to Slim Boukhdir, thirty-nine, a blogger and contributor to the London-based newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi. Although Boukhdir was charged with ‘insulting behaviour towards an official in the exercise of his duty’ and ‘breaching public decency’, it is widely believed that his prison sentence is punishment for articles he had written that were critical of Ben Ali and his family.
Radia Nasraoui, the lawyer representing Boukhdir, complained of ‘procedural irregularities’, which included the judge’s refusal to listen to the defence’s arguments. Abbou put it more bluntly, calling the verdict ‘vindictive’ and ‘politically motivated’.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Boukhdir was arrested on 26 November in Sfax, while travelling to Tunis to meet with a police officer handling his passport application. Police reportedly stopped his cab and asked for identification, before arresting him. Officers alleged that Boukhdir was verbally abusive – a charge he denies.
It is interesting that Abbou was also accused of assault shortly after the publication of his critical article on torture. Reporters Without Borders suggest that ‘Tunisian journalists are often jailed on grounds unrelated to their works so that the authorities cannot be accused of censorship.’ Boukhdir, they believe, ‘is paying the price for being outspoken’.
Given the tight controls on the media, the close monitoring of the Internet, and the limits imposed on freedom of expression, there is a certain irony to the fact that Tunisia hosted the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. At the time, various opposition figures attempted to draw attention to the government’s inconsistency by holding a hunger strike. During the run-up to the conference, the government responded to criticism by clamping down on NGOs, while individuals faced arrest, imprisonment, and even physical attacks in the street.
According to Freedom House, the situation for independent journalists remains acutely difficult:
Self-censorship is significant, and repressive measures are taken against any outlets that offer oppositional viewpoints; for example, most online publications, such as Kalimat and Tunizine, are accessible only from abroad. The authorities frequently tell journalists whom to cover and how.
Boukhdir has been in trouble before for his writing. Last May, shortly after publishing online a story that criticised the first lady’s brother, he was assaulted by what he believed were plainclothes policemen as he left an Internet cafe in Tunis. As well as suffering police harassment, he has reportedly been denied a passport for three years and found his work curtailed at one government newspaper.
Reports of corruption amongst the powers that be in Tunisia are nothing new. Freedom House describes how the family of the president’s wife has already been implicated in ‘improper’ business deals:
Having started with few if any economic holdings, the Trabelsi clan – brothers and sisters of the president’s wife Leila – has been accused of improperly accumulating assets since her marriage to the president, including the only private radio station in the country, Radio Mosaïque; the country’s most important airline and hotel company, Carthago Airlines; and important stakes in the wholesale, service, and agribusiness sectors.
Boukhdir joins CPJ’s most recent list of 127 journalists currently imprisoned worldwide. Since his arrest in November, he has been on two hunger strikes in protest at police harassment and the government’s refusal to grant him a passport, and also to highlight the poor prison conditions and threatening behaviour of the prison guards and inmates.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Boukhdir to:
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
c/o Head of Mission: HE Mrs Hamida M’rabet Labidi
29 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1QG
Fax: (020) 7225 2884
For further information on Freedom House please visit: http://www.freedomhouse.org/