Tunisia: Journalists and bloggers assaulted on “Martyrs’ Day” protest

Anti-government protesters  clashed with police in the streets of Tunis over the weekend as they attempted to defy a ban prohibiting demonstrations on the capital’s main avenue.

Protesters raising anti-government slogans took to the streets on 9 April to celebrate Martyrs’ Day in commemoration of those killed by French troops on the same date in 1938, but were soon faced with a tough crack down from police.

Tear gas and batons were used to disperse protesters who were in defiance of the ban, introduced by the Interior Ministry on 28 March, prohibiting demonstrations on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. On 14 January 2011, thousands of protesters gathered on the emblematic avenue to call for the fall of the regime of Ben Ali the emblematic avenue.

While covering the Martyrs’ Day protest and the clashes between protesters and police, bloggers and journalists got a taste of police brutality. Monji Khadhraoui, General Secretary of the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) told Index on Censorship that 13 journalists from both national and foreign press were assaulted.

Meriem Ben Ghazi, a young journalist for Tunisia Live was verbally abused and threatened by three police officers in plain clothes, whilst using an iPad to live stream the protest on the interent. She was assaulted even though she had her press card with her, and told police that she was a journalist.

Ben Ghazi to Index: “one police officer said to me ‘If you do not go home, we will beat you.’ They struck the Ipad with their batons, and they also tried to arrest our cameraman. We were not the only ones. We saw many journalists being assaulted.”

Julie Schneider, the Tunis correspondent for the French newspaper Le Point was also assaulted, despite telling police that she was a journalist. In a testimony published on the website of the newspaper, Schneider described the abuse by the police:

“In few minutes, I fell to the ground. I was beaten on my back, and on my behind…I was only thinking about my camera, my memory card, and the shots that I took. I do not know how much time it took…Finally, I could hear my camera being smashed on the sidewalk…A representative of the Democratic Modernist Pole intervened and screamed that I was a journalist. I repeated the same thing, but nothing. I was beaten again on my head.”

The SNJT decided to stop its coverage of all the activities of the Interior Ministry and those of Ennhdha (the ruling party) which the syndicate accuses of “sending its militias” to assault journalists. Zied el-Hani, a journalist, and an executive member of the SNJT told private radio station Mosaique FM that he was verbally abused by “militias belonging to Ennahdha”.

Prominent blogger Fatma Riahi (who uses the alias Fatma Arabicca) was beaten by a police officer in plain clothes, and she was immediately transferred to a hospital.

“We took to the streets to demand our right to free expression, but the police of Larayedh (Minister of Interior) — no longer the police of Ben Ali — the police of Ennhdha oppressed us, because we do not hold the same opinion”, she said.

The French language web magazine, Kapitalis also reported that its editor-in-chief Zohra Abid was beaten by a police officer.

Almost 15 months after the fall of the autocratic rule of Ben Ali, journalists are still being assaulted for doing their job. The battle for freedom of speech and a free press seems to be far from over in the birth place of the so-called Arab Spring.