Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate release of Nasreddine Ben Saida, the publisher of the Arabic-language daily Attounissia, and the withdrawal of all charges against him, the newspaper’s editor, Habib Guizani, and one of its journalists, Mohammed Hedi Hidri.
The first media executive to be jailed in the post-Ben Ali era, Ben Saida has been held since 15 February, when he, Guizani and Hidri were arrested by the vice squad on the prosecutor-general’s orders for printing a photo of German-Tunisian football player Sami Khedira embracing a naked model on the front-page of that day’s issue, which was seized from newsstands.
Guizani and Hidri were released yesterday afternoon after being questioned, but a judge ordered Ben Saida placed in pre-trial custody on charges that carry a possible sentence of six months to five years in prison and a fine of 120 to 1,200 dinars (60 to 600 euros).
By bringing criminal charges, the prosecutor’s office is showing that journalists can still go to prison for a newspaper article and is sending an extremely disturbing signal to all those who defend freedom of expression.
“This is a hypocritical reaction because photos of this kind often appear on the cover of foreign magazines sold in Tunisia,” Reporters Without Borders said.
The press freedom organization firmly condemns the use of the criminal code in this case, as article 13 of the new press law, which has just taken effect, says that journalists “cannot be prosecuted in connection with their work unless a violation of the provisions of this decree-law is proved.”
Instead of the new press law, the prosecution is using article 121, paragraph 3 of the criminal code (added by Organic Law No. 2001-43 of 3 May 2001, amending the former press law). It says that: “The distribution, sale or public display – or the possession with the intent to distribute, sell or display for a propaganda purpose – of leaflets, newsletters or stickers, whether of foreign origin or not, likely to disturb public order and decency, is forbidden.”
This portrayal of a press offence as a common crime is reminiscent of the political and administrative machinations that were used to convict journalists and gag the media when Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was president.
As Reporters Without Borders said in an assessment last month, on the first anniversary of Tunisia’s revolution, the new press law must be regarded as the only law applying to the media. Article 2 of the new law repeals “all previous laws that contradict this law from that the day it takes effect” and repeals all laws that contradict its decriminalization of press offences. Continuing to use the criminal code for press offences renders the new press law null and void.
The Attounissia arrests and charges coincided with a news conference by the National Body for the Reform of Information and Communication (INRIC) at which its representatives stressed the need to activate and implement the new media laws and voiced concern about the government’s “ambiguous” and “contradictory” language.
The government was refusing to take a firm position on the major issues affecting the media and information sector (including the adoption of decree-laws and the appointment of a new director at Radio Zitouna) while being very scathing in its criticism of the media, the INRIC said.
Reporters Without Borders urges Tunisia’s entire political class to demand implementation of the press law and to defend the media, which are guarantors of democracy and pluralism.