In a country where press freedom barely exists, 2003 saw the release from jail of cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui and an announcement that privately-owned radio and TV stations would be allowed.
Tunisia continued to advertise itself as an oasis of stability and modernity and the region’s most solid bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. But the gap grew between this image peddled abroad and the increasing violation of human rights in the country itself. A telling incident was the appointment on 10 September 2003 of former secret policeman Habib Ammar as organiser for the World Summit on the Information Society that Tunisia will host in November 2005.
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali made several gestures towards change on his 16th anniversary of taking power on 7 November and a few weeks before the Euromed Partnership Summit and the visit of French President Jacques Chirac in December. Amid a blaze of publicity, he said broadcasting would be opened up to private ownership and announced the immediate opening of a privately-owned radio station, Mosaïque FM.
He said he regarded the media as "particularly important" and wanted to "help it to function better, improve its content and establish freedom of opinion and expression."
Cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui was freed conditionally on 18 November after 18 months in prison. But lawyer and human rights activist Radhia Nasraoui staged a 57-day hunger-strike from 15 October to 10 December, accusing the authorities of wanting to silence and isolate her because of her campaign for human rights and against torture.
Two journalists imprisoned
Hamadi Jebali, publisher of the weekly Al Fajr, unofficial organ of the Islamist group An Nahda, remained in prison, where he has been since 1991. He was sentenced in 1992 by the Tunis military court to 16 years in jail for "aggressively seeking to change the nature of the state" and "belonging to an illegal organisation." He had just completed a one-year sentence for publishing an article criticising the system of military courts.
His wife was able to see him for the first time without a grill between them on 25 January 2003. From mid-January to 22 February he staged a hunger-strike to protest against jail conditions and to demand his freedom. In March, he was moved from Bizerte prison to one in Sfax for unknown reasons. His wife and daughters have had their passports confiscated.
Al-Fajr journalist Abdallah Zouari was sentenced on appeal on 8 October to a total of 13 months in prison for defamation and for "failing to obey an administrative order."
He had been sentenced to four months in jail on 18 July after the owner of a cybercafé had filed a complaint after having a row with him when she refused to allow him to go online. He had also been given a nine-month sentence on 29 August after being arrested by plainclothes police on 17 August in the marketplace in Ben Guerdane. Since his release on 6 June 2002 after 11 years in prison, he had been banned him from leaving Mednine province, but Ben Guerdane is in the province.
The failure of his two appeals showed the authorities’ determination to legally harass him. On 5 December, he joined a hunger-strike by a group of political prisoners protesting about conditions of detention.
A cyber-dissident freed
Cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui, founder and editor of the news website TUNeZINE, was conditionally released on 18 November 2003 after serving more than half of a two-year sentence. He had been arrested on 4 June 2002 in a Tunis cybercafé by plainclothes police, interrogated by the interior ministry’s state security police, the DES, and tortured until he revealed the access code to his website. He was sentenced on 10 July to a year in prison for "putting out false news aimed at giving the impression there had been a criminal attack on persons or property" and another year for "theft and fraudulent use of a means of communication." He had put opposition material on his website and several times made fun of President Ben Ali online.
Exasperated by his conditions of detention (reading forbidden, letters stolen, daily exercise banned and threats by the guards, who also deliberately contaminated his food), he went on three hunger-strikes in the first half of 2003 that greatly weakened him. On 4 June, the authorities turned back his French fiancée, Sophie Piekarec, who had arrived from France for the anniversary of his imprisonment.
The supreme court in Tunis rejected his appeal on 12 July. On 22 July, he was allowed out to see the body of his father, who had died of a heart attack the day before. The neighbourhood of the family home was sealed off and Yahyaoui was only allowed to stay with the body for half an hour and only with eight police present. He was not allowed to attend the funeral a few days later. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders / Globenet Cyber-Freedom Prize on 19 June.
Harassment and obstruction
Plainclothes police went on 6 January 2003 to the family home in Gabès of Hedi Yahmed, formerly with the magazine Réalité, looking for him. He had been forced to resign in late December 2002 after writing an article about prisons.
Officials detained Tunisian journalist Sophie Bagga, of the Paris-based monthly L’Audace, for two hours at Tunis airport on 2 February and seized most of the copies she was carrying of the magazine, which is run by her husband Slim Bagga, a Tunisian journalist living in exile.
About 20 youths were arrested at their homes in Zarzis (500 km southeast of Tunis) on 5 February. Seven of them, including a minor, were still being provisionally held in the civil prison in Tunis in September. They were accused of "associating with criminals, theft and acquiring materials to make bombs" by looking at "terrorist" Internet websites. Their lawyer, who visited them in prison, said they has been tortured and had bad cases of scabies.
Journalist and human rights activist Neziha Rejiba, better known as Om Zied, was summoned on 25 September by senior customs officials for giving a young Tunisian 170 euros in cash, an offence in some circumstances punishable by five years in prison and a fine. However, she was not at fault, since the law allows her a week to convert foreign currency into Tunisian dinars after returning from abroad, during which time she is free to do what she likes with the money.
She said the incident was part of constant official harassment of her because of the anti-government opinions she expressed on foreign satellite TV stations. She writes for the foreign-based online magazine Kalima (www.kalima.com), which has been blocked in Tunisia since it appeared in October 2000, though a printed version circulates secretly.
She was given an eight-month suspended jail sentence by a Tunis court on 19 November and fined 1,200 dinars (800 euros). A dozen lawyers defended her in court and denounced her trial as "a political operation" to smear her for her political activities and outspoken writings. An appeal hearing was adjourned on 31 December until 25 February 2004.