April 27, 2010
Tunisia pays much lip service to respecting human rights, but the reality is otherwise. Secretary Clinton should publicly press the foreign minister for an end to the persecution of independent journalists and human rights activists, and an easing of internet censorship.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch
(New York) - Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton should send a clear message to Tunisia's foreign minister, Kamel Morjane, when they meet on April 28, 2010, in Washington, DC, that his government should respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
Morjane is in Washington this week for a series of high-level meetings with US officials, also including James L. Jones, the national security adviser, and Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
"Tunisia pays much lip service to respecting human rights, but the reality is otherwise," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Secretary Clinton should publicly press the foreign minister for an end to the persecution of independent journalists and human rights activists, and an easing of internet censorship."
Tunisia shows intolerance for nearly all forms of peaceful dissent, despite repeated declarations by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali that human rights are a central concern of his government. Since his re-election to a fifth term last October, there have been new instances of repression. Courts have sentenced two journalists to prison, and omnipresent plainclothes police block most public gatherings organized by opposition and human rights groups.
In a speech on January 21, Clinton cited Tunisia as among the countries that has "stepped up" its censorship of the internet. The government blocks many news and human rights websites that include information and opinion critical of the government. Rights activists and dissidents report that their e-mail accounts are frequently inaccessible or their messages hacked.
Morjane's visit coincides with the April 27 appeal hearing for the journalist Fahem Boukadous, who was sentenced to four years in prison in January, convicted of "joining a criminal gang" that incited economic protests in the Gafsa region of southern Tunisia between January and June 2008.
The real reason for the charges, Human Rights Watch said, was his extensive coverage of the protests for al-Hiwar al-Tounsi, an independent television station based abroad. During his previous hearings, no clear evidence was brought against him, and his lawyers were not allowed to make their case in court. All broadcast media based in Tunisia are either state-owned or pro-government.
In addition to bringing criminal charges against journalists who upset the government with their reporting, the Tunisian authorities prevent human rights organizations from operating freely. Only two independent human rights organizations have legal status in Tunisia, but their activities are hampered by police harassment, including breaking up meetings, preventing members from reaching their offices, and tight surveillance.
The US has had longstanding good relations with Tunisia and gives it about $20 million in aid annually, most of it military. Washington has at the same time openly urged Tunisia to ease its repressive conduct, with President George W. Bush publicly expressing to Ben Ali during a state visit in Washington in February 2004 a wish to see a press that is "vibrant and free" and a political process that is "open."
"The Obama administration should continue the tradition of both private and public diplomacy in support of the right of Tunisian citizens to speak and associate peacefully and to access the internet and their e-mail freely," Whitson said.