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Journalist and activist Ramzi Bettaieb ended a 15-day hunger strike yesterday.
Three other activists and bloggers, Azyz Amami, Houcem Hajlaoui and Emine M’tiraoui, who went on hunger strike in solidarity with Bettaieb have also ended their action.
Bettaieb, who works for the blogger’s collective Nawaat, went on hunger strike to highlight the lack of transparency in a crucial case being tried in front of a military court. On 21 May, the military authorities confiscated two of Bettaieb’s cameras as he tried to cover trials at the Military Tribunal of El Kef in the investigation of the murder of protesters during the 2011 Tunisian revolution
Tunisian journalists’ video coverage of court hearings is currently restricted to three minutes inside court rooms and Bettaieb accuses the military of deliberately preventing journalists from documenting what Nawaat has described as “the most important trials of Tunisia’s modern history”.
Bettaieb has now his cameras back, and the support of Tunisia’s constituent assembly, which pledged to look into his demands of lifting the restrictions on journalists and activists seeking to cover the court hearings in the martyrs’ case.
Bettaieb has also demanded the case be tried instead by an independent judicial structure instead of miltary judges.
“Our bodies’ powers are limited, but our determination is unlimited,” Bettaieb said at a press conference.
In its annual report published on World Press Freedom Day (3 May), the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) announced that it had registered 60 physical assaults against journalists over the last year.
The syndicate criticised the “passivity and silence of the government” in response to the alarming increase in the number of assaults.
Multiple assaults were recorded in April alone. The most recent act of violence recorded took place on 30 April, when militants belonging to the Ennahda Movement, assaulted a journalist working for the collective blog Nawaat.
Ennahda is the largest party in Tunisia’s governing alliance and Emine M’tiraoui was attacked while he was at the headquarters of the party, after he conducted an interview with a party member.
In testimony published on Nawaat.org, M’tiraoui said:
at the lobby of the party’s headquarters there was a fight and a woman was screaming. I had my camera with me, and it seems that my assaulters thought that I was filming what was going on. Though I had my press card, with my name and the name of Nawaat on it, a young militant in the movement circulated that I was “a leftist dog, and a police officer loyal to one of Tunisia’s leftist figures.
The attack continued outside the party’s headquarters. “Outside I fell to the ground…there were police officers who witnessed the assaults but they did not interfere to stop [it]” he told Index.
In less than a month M’tiraoui has been assaulted twice. On 9 April, militants of another prominent political party in Tunisia, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) beat him while he was covering the party’s conference.
According to the estimates from Aymen Rezgui, member of the press syndicate’s executive board, one assault is registered every week. This increase in the number of assaults is due to “police’s laxity, and to the attempts of a number of political parties to incite public opinion against journalists,” Rezgui explains.
Leaders of Ennahda, which heads the three-party coalition government, have often expressed their dissatisfaction with the media’s coverage of the government. In an interview with Radio Express FM on 25 April, Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s president, accused state television station, Wataniya 1 of having “an anti revolutionary and biased editorial line which rejoices at the defeat of the legitimate government”.
“There is a clear hostility towards the government” he added.
The SNJT, on the other hand, accuses the government of seeking to tighten control over the media sector. In its report the SNJT denounced attempts to force “the media sector to follow the political vision of the government”.
Members of the IFEX-TMG gathered in Tunis for World Press Freedom Day to mark the launch of four new initiatives to support Tunisian rights to freedom of expression, which remains under threat despite the gains of the past year.
The new work includes a literary anthology edited by the president of PEN Tunisia Naziha Rejiba, a training manual on online advocacy, a workshop for cartoonists, and a national newspaper and billboard campaign championing free expression rights as Tunisia’ Constituent Assembly continues to negotiate a new national constitution.
With hundreds of press freedom campaigners in Tunis alongside the IFEX-TMG to attend UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day conference, the timeliness of these events was underlined by the sentencing of two young Facebook users to lengthy prison sentences and the fining of the head of a TV station for broadcasting the award-winning film Persepolis.
“Things have improved since the fall of the old regime, but there’s no question that the right to freedom of expression in Tunisia is not yet secure or safe,” said Rohan Jayasekera from IFEX-TMG member Index on Censorship.
The anthology, Fleeting Words, edited by Rejiba, the veteran dissident best known as ‘Om Ziad’, is published in partnership between IFEX-TMG, PEN Tunisia and Atlas Publications. Now available in Arabic, French and English editions will be published in June.
The IFEX-TMG also launched a training manual on online free expression campaign strategy developed by the IFEX-TMG member, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), with local partner, the Tunisian Centre for Freedom of the Press (CTPJ). This follows a series of training workshops, with the two most recent held in Sidi Bouzid and Tunis.
This week also sees the launch of a major multi-media campaign in support of free expression rights developed in partnership with the Tunisian online media group Nawaat.org. Using 75 street billboards and adverts in national print and broadcast media, it will be seen by hundreds of thousands of Tunisians across the country.
Also this month, ANHRI and fellow IFEX-TMG member the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) organised a two-day workshop in the coastal Tunisian city of Sousse.
Sixteen digital and ink cartoonists from across Tunisia and the region, as CRNI Executive Director Dr Robert Russell put it, “all on the cutting edge of free speech,” gathered to exchange techniques and experiences.
The initiatives are part of the IFEX-TMG project Monitoring & Advocacy in Support of Independent Human Rights Defenders in Tunisia (2010-2012), managed by Index on Censorship and supported by the European Commission and Oxfam Novib.
The need for continuing work in the sector was underlined by the prosecution of Nabil Karoui, director of privately-owned Nessma TV for blasphemy and disturbing public order. The charges followed the station’s screening of the animated film Persepolis in October 2011. Karoui was fined 2,400 Tunisian dinars (961 GBP) on the charge of disturbing the public order, after protesters stormed Nessma TV.
“That Nabil Karoui avoided jail is not cause for celebration, the case should not have been brought to a court of law to begin with,” said Virginie Jouan, IFEX-TMG Chair.
The IFEX-TMG also expressed concern about the sentencing of Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji and Jabeur Ben Abdallah Majri to over seven years in prison after Beji posted an online manuscript said to be critical of the Prophet, and Mejri reposted some of it.
On Sunday, 13 February, the Tunis court of first instance ordered Cheker Besbes, a journalist for the private radio station Mosaique FM, to pay a fine of 200 dinars (around GBP £82), for allegedly videotaping a hearing in trial of Nessma TV employees. The TV station’s general director and two staff are accused of ““violating sacred values” by showing French-Irianian film Persepolis, which includes images of Allah.
Besbes admits he had a camera with him in the courtroom, but denies videotaping the hearing. “Besides,” he said in an interview with the blog collective Nawaat.org, “there is no law that prohibits entering the courtroom with a camera. Using it is indeed illegal, but in my case it did not happen.”
Besbes insists that the court punished him without even checking his camera’s footage. “They have condemned me for filming inside the courtroom, without taking the legal procedures to find out if I did so or not”, he said.
Justice Minister Nourreddine Bhiri’s decision to ban filming of the trial came as a surprise to journalists, who had been allowed to film previous trials, among them the trial in absentia of former President Zeine El Abidin Ben Ali and the first session in the hearing of the Nessma TV case.
Nabil Karoui, general director of Nessma TV, a privately-owned television station, and two of his employees are accused of “violating sacred values” and “disturbing the public order” for broadcasting the French-Iranian film Persepolis.
Besbes and his lawyers referred the case to the Court of Cassation, Tunisia’s highest court.
“The problem is not whether the fine of 200 dinars represents a considerable proportion of my salary,” said Besbes. “We are against the sentence and I have decided along with my lawyers to take the case to the cassation court. We were expecting a non-suit, because I’m innocent,” he told Nawaat.