Violence and censorship fuel Tunisia tensions

Journalists beaten during protests calling for a “new revolution” and online censorship makes a comeback.

Tunisian police Saturday
Riot police have clashed with protesters denouncing the transitional government and calling for ‘a new revolution’ [AFP]

Tunisians protesters, web dissidents and journalists are wondering if the bad old days have returned after criticisms of the interim government were met with police attacks and renewed online censorship.

Police wielding batons and firing teargas scuffled on Saturday with hundreds of protesters demanding the departure of the government and angry at a heavy-handed response to demonstrations this week.

Later, Tunisia’s interim rulers ordered an overnight curfew in the capital of Tunis, state television said, quoting the interior ministry as saying the curfew would be in force from 9pm to 5am.

The new protests in the north African country, where the Arab world’s tide of unrest began, are rooted in fears an interim administration will renege on its commitment to democracy after the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as president in January.

Tensions have risen after a former interior minister said that Ben Ali loyalists might seize power in a coup if Islamists won elections scheduled in July to pick a government that will write a new constitution.

The country’s interim rulers have condemned the statement by the former minister, Farhat Rajhi, that there could be a coup if Islamists won the election, but it has not been enough to calm protesters – further angered by the tough police tactics.

The developments coincide with the conviction by a Tunis court of a nephew of Leila Trabelsi, Tunisia’s widely reviled former first lady, on drug consumption charges.

Imad Trabelsi was sentenced on Saturday to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine, according to Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights.

The conviction is the second of a member of Ben Ali’s extended family since he fled Tunisia in January amid huge street protests that sparked similar uprisings across the Arab world.

Censorship returns

In the wake of Rajhi’s allegations in a video that triggered the protests, a Facebook page calling for him to become the president got mysteriously deleted by Saturday.

The page had attracted more than 10,000 “Likes” in a show of support for Rajhi, a political outsider who is seen by many online activists as “cleaner” than other politicians.

Saturday also marked the return of the Tunisian Internet Agency, considered a government censorship tool during Ben Ali’s rule.

The agency has blocked the Facebook page of Jalel Brick, a democracy activist, through a new censorship law that, the Tunisian news website Webdo reported on Saturday, has been quietly passed by the interim government.

Tunisian internet users trying to access Brick’s Facebook profile came across a message saying “This web page has been filtered in accordance with a requisition from the examining magistrate at the request of the Tunis Military Tribunal”.

Facebook played a key role in the uprising in December and January, allowing Tunisians to sidestep censorship and communicate with each other and the outside world about the mass protest movement.

A total of 15 reporters and photographers working for both the local and foreign media, male and female alike, were subjected to beatings and insults and had their equipment seized on Thursday and Friday in the capital.

Marwa Rkik, 25, said she was giving a live report on the local Radio Kalima when she saw two plainclothes policemen running at her, followed by another 10 in uniform.

“They beat me all over with clubs and with their helmets, and I needed five stitches to head wounds,” she said on Saturday, adding that she was going to lodge a complaint for assault.

Rkik said she thought the police wanted revenge on the press for exposing their activities under Ben Ali’s government.

New revolution call

Friday’s attacks came as riot police used tear gas and truncheons to break up a protest in central Tunis by about 200 people, mainly youths, as they denounced the transitional government and called for “a new revolution”.

Dog handlers and even a light armoured car took part in the operation on the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

As demonstrators and bystanders alike fled the police charge, officers surrounded individuals, some of them on the ground, kicking and beating them with truncheons and sticks.

Rajhi, right, was briefly interior minister after the uprising, until he was sacked in March [EPA]

Tunisia’s interior ministry issued a statement on Friday apologising to “journalists and citizens involuntarily assaulted” and said it was opening an inquiry into who had been responsible.

The demonstrations on both Thursday and Friday were called by supporters of Rajhi.

Journalists who for 23 years suffered surveillance, threats, interrogations and other pressure under Ben Ali, had hoped for true press freedom following his departure after mass popular protests.

“We’re very angry,” the head of the Tunisian journalists’ union, Neji Bgoughi, told the AFP news agency.

“We achieved this revolution to have freedom of expression, it’s as if the old regime was still in place.”

Calling the interior ministry’s apologies inadequate, he called for sanctions against those responsible and for journalists to be represented on a commission of inquiry.

On Thursday Associated Press photographer Hassan Dridi said police had kicked and punched him to the ground after he tried to photograph the police action against demonstrators.

And on Friday Fathi Belaid, an AFP photographer, said he was assaulted by four policemen on the stairs of the newspaper La Presse.

“They seized two cameras and a portable computer and hit me on the head with iron bars,” he added.

Another photographer, Mohamed El-Hammi of the EPA agency, said police had beaten him up and taken his camera.

“I can’t move my back any more it hurts so much,” he told AFP before going for treatment.

Journalists from Al Jazeera, Reuters news agency, the Arab-language El-Sahafa and Tunisia’s La Presse newspapers were also among those assaulted, the union said.

The Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders said the violence was reminiscent of the Ben Ali government and called on the transitional government to rein in the security forces.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies