Lawyer and cyber-dissident Mohammed Abbou was freed from Kef prison on 24 July 2007 after nearly two-and-a-half years for condemning online the use of torture in the country. His release, the year’s only good news for journalists, did not lead to increased democracy. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali repeated his promise to open up Tunisia to “a diversity of opinion” and urged the press to be bolder. But several journalists were physically attacked by police in 2007 while doing their job or brought before a court for bogus reasons. Online censorship remained as tight as ever and many foreign newspapers containing articles about Tunisia were not allowed into the country.
Abbou has not been allowed to leave the country since he was freed and was twice turned back at the airport as he tried to go abroad at the invitation of media organisations and human rights groups. Journalist Abdallah Zouari, of the Islamist paper Al Fajr, freed in 2002 after 11 years in prison, had his five-year internal exile in Zarzis (500 kms from his family in Tunis) extended by 26 months without explanation in June 2007. He has to report regularly to the police station nearest to where he lives.
Journalist thrown in prison
A dozen journalists were physically attacked by police in 2007, three media outlets censored and foreign papers such as France’s Le Canard enchaîné and Charlie Hebdo indefinitely banned from the country. Three journalists were prosecuted and two of them given prison terms, including Slim Boukhdir, correspondent for the news website Al-Arabiya.net, who was sentenced to a year for “insulting an official doing his job,” “bad behaviour” and “refusal to show ID papers.” Tunisian journalists are often convicted for things unrelated to their job so the regime can avoid criticism for censorship. Boukhdir was arrested during an identity check of passengers in a Tunis-Sfax route-taxi after being followed by police. He was refused bail throughout the case and on World Press Freedom Day (3 May) was physically attacked in Tunis by plainclothes police who kicked him and called him a “traitor” and a “spy,” a few days after he wrote that an aide of the president had been responsible for the death of several people at a concert in Sfax.
Obsessive control of news
The regime allows no social or political protests, newspapers of the legal opposition are monitored closely and seized at the slightest sign of criticism and the authorities are obsessed with controlling the news. All Internet cafés are supervised by the regime and access to the video-sharing website Dailymotion is regularly blocked. An issue of the French weekly Courrier International was not distributed in the country in March because it contained a piece by Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik bitterly describing the poor Hay El-Akrad neighbourhood of Tunis. Foreign journalists can get into the country fairly easily but are closely watched. A group of Swiss journalists who came in November 2007 to report on the festivities marking President Ben Ali’s 20 years in power were not allowed to talk to ordinary Tunisians and were escorted everywhere by an official of the government’s external communications agency (ACTE).