Independent and pro-opposition journalists are prevented from working through government surveillance and harassment and their freedom of movement shrinks daily.
The former editor of the weekly Al Fajr, Hamadi Jebali, was freed in February 2006 after 15 years in prison but is still under tight surveillance. State security agents posted on the roofs and verandas of his neighbours watch all his movements, spy on his private life and even disrupted the marriage of his daughter in November 2006.
Jebali was among 1,600 political prisoners pardoned by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on 25 February. He had been sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in 1992 for “belonging to an illegal organisation” and “intending to change the form of government.”
Families fighting to ensure jailed journalists are not forgotten are under great pressure. Lawyer and human rights activist Mohammed Abbou has been in prison since March 2005 for writing an article criticising Ben Ali that was posted online. Since his wife Samia staged a hunger-strike on 13 August 2006 to demand his release, her movements have been watched by a horde of police stationed in front of the family home who sometimes bar visitors from entering. Two journalists, Slim Boukhdir and Taoufik al-Ayachi, were roughed up when they arrived at the house to interview her on 16 August.
She was threatened by armed police in front of her children when she tried to return to the house on 26 October and fled in fright to the house of friends. She was physically attacked twice by groups of youths as police stood by when she was on the way to the prison in Kef (170 km from Tunis) where her husband is being held. Regime opponent Moncef Marzouki, journalist Slim Boukhdir and lawyer Samir Ben Amar, who were with her, were also assaulted.
Foreign journalists going to Tunisia are not allowed to work freely. Algerian reporter Meddi Adlène was constantly followed in November by six plainclothes police and others were posted outside his hotel. The secret police did not stop his interviews but their visible presence was aimed at intimidating the people he met. French journalist Léa Labaye, of the website Bakchich.info, was refused entry to the country on 16 September without explanation.
Tunisia also censored publications “offensive to Islam” after a Danish paper printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in September 2005. The 19 September issue of the French daily Le Figaro, carrying an article by French philosopher Robert Redeker headed “What should the free world do about Islamist intimidation?” was banned under a law protecting religion, which had also been used in February to confiscate an issue of the French daily France Soir that reprinted the cartoons.
In 2005, Tunisia had the honour of hosting the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a big UN event about the Internet’s future. Yet President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s Internet policies are among the most repressive in the world. All the Internet cafes are state-controlled. They filter web content and are under close police surveillance. It is, for example, impossible to access the Reporters Without Borders website from inside Tunisia. The security services also constantly harass independent bloggers and opposition website editors to ensure that self-censorship prevails. One cyber-dissident, Mohammed Abbou, has been imprisoned since March 2005 for criticising the president in an online newsletter.