- Between 30 and 60 plain-clothed policemen have over the past two weeks surrounded the offices of 'Kalima', an online newspaper that is the only independent media based in Tunisia. 'Kalima' journalists have thus been prevented from working and updating their news site, which for years has been inaccessible for Tunisian readers.
According to reports, the plain-clothed policemen for two weeks have surrounded the premises that 'Kalima' shares with the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and prevented journalists from entering their offices and working.
Since its launch in 2000, 'Kalima' has faced censorship and, despite repeated attempts to register the publication with the Tunis Interior Ministry, has been unable to get the application processed. No independent publications are allowed in Tunisia.
On the website of the outspoken media, 'Kalima' campaigns for the freeing of Mohammed Abbou, a founding member of two Tunisian human rights organisations the government also has refused to recognise. Mr Abbou was sentenced to a three and a half years in prison in 2005 by a Tunisian appeal court, on charges including "insulting the judiciary" and publishing material "likely to disturb the public order."
The latest article 'Kalima' was able to publish treats the 24 May "arrest and assault" of human rights defender and ex-political prisoner Lassaad Jouhri by Tunis police. Mr Jouhri has been a key intermediary between prisoners and their families, on the one hand, and those seeking information about human rights conditions in Tunisia, on the other.
According to the Tunisia Monitoring Group, an association of several press freedom organisations, Tunisian editors of online magazines have had resort to the Internet "because of the absence of independent journalism and because the government has failed so far to stifle freedom of expression completely on the Internet thanks to proxies and pressure from the international community."
Also Sihem Bensedrine, the editor of 'Kalima', had initially intended to publish her magazine as an independent newspaper in Tunisia. As she cannot get an authority to do so from the Tunisian government, Ms Bensedrine has had to resort to an online version.
But by now, also Tunisian online media have started to face tougher government reactions, as the current attack on 'Kalima' demonstrates. According to the Tunisian Human Rights League, the tight police surveillance of the Internet and the harassment and imprisonment of two web-based journalists have already had a negative impact on the rate of Internet use.
Tunisian authorities have become successful in their attempts to censor the 'Kalima' website. For several years now, it has been totally inaccessible for websurfers in Tunisia and can only be accessed outside the country.
The new attack on 'Kalima' has caused loud protests by hundreds of journalists and editors currently attending the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) congress in Cape Town. WAN today "strongly condemned the continuing pressure exerted" against 'Kalima'. The congress called on Tunisian authorities "to immediately halt the harassment campaign against Kalima, to allow its staff to work freely and to ensure that Kalima can effectively apply for registration."
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