Monday, September 30, 2013

Rappers Latest Victims Of Tunisia's Crackdown On Free Expression

Rapper Klay BBJ (Photo courttesy BBC)
Freedom of expression in Tunisia, the womb of the Arab Spring, is under increasing peril with rapper Klay BBJ’s six-month jail sentence for “insulting the police” with his songs, becoming the latest example. Klay’s fellow-accused, rapper Weld El 15 is in hiding and did not appear in court.

Meanwhile, Zaid El Hani, editor and president of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, could be jailed for two years on charges of defamation and “fabricating evidence” for publicly defending a journalist who was arrested earlier, also on criminal charges.


Klay BBJ, whose real name is Ahamed Ben Ahamed and Weld El 15 were sentenced to 21 months imprisonment in August for insulting the police with their songs at a concert in Hammamet, reported the UK-based BBC. Klay appealed the August sentence, but the judge while reducing it to six months did not overturn the earlier decision entirely.

The BBC, quoting AFP, said that Klay told court, “‘Our songs criticise the current situation in Tunisia and the government, no more and no less. I am among the rappers most critical of the government and that is why [the authorities] are after me.’”

Weld El 15, whose real name is Ala Yaccoubi, did not appear in court last week and is in hiding since August. BBC said that he was earlier convicted for his song The Police are Dogs and sentenced to a two-year jail term in June. However, after his sentence suspended in July he was released from prison.

Meanwhile, El Hani who was ordered to be detained on criminal charges by judge on September 13, was held for three days until he was bailed out said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF). His arrest came after he accused the public prosecutor of fabricating charges against cameraman Mourad Meherzi, who the government has accused of complicity in a criminal act, when he filmed an egg being thrown at a Tunisian government minister.

El Hani, in a television interview disputed the public prosecutor's claim that Meherzi had signed a document attesting his complicity in the incident. Displaying the official papers, El Hani said contrary to what the public prosecutor had claimed, Meherzi had not signed a confession admitting to complicity in throwing the egg. The egg was thrown by the filmmaker, Nasreddine Shili.

El Hani was subsequently arrested for fabricating evidence, as under Tunisian law “anyone who, in a public address, in the media or by other means of publicity, makes accusations against a public official or accuses him of illegal activities in connection with his work, without establishing the truth of these allegations,” could be sentenced to two years in prison.

“Placing Zied El Heni in pre-trial detention was completely unjustified and was done with the aim of silencing criticism of the proceedings against Mourad Meherzi. There has been disturbing increase in prosecutions of journalists and public figures, and this just took the already considerable tension up another notch,” RSF said.

Five media watchdogs, including RSF, have also complained about Tunisian authorities over the arrest of Meherzi. As he not only stands accused of filming the incident where an egg was thrown at a government minister, but charges of conspiracy to commit an act violence against a public official as well, which carry a possible sentence of seven years in prison.

“The fact that a cameraman who filmed embarrassing footage in the course of his work was accused by a government minister of complicity, and that the prosecutor general then immediately began an investigation, constitutes an extremely disturbing and dangerous development for freedom of information in Tunisia,” the five media freedom organisations said.

In the face of El Hani’s arrest and other acts of repression against the media, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists SNJT (Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens) called for a general strike on September 17. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), of which SNJT is a member, congratulated the protest against what it called “attempts by the Islamic-led authorities to stifle free speech by using the old legal arsenal of the Ben Ali government.”

Earlier in July, journalists who covered protests that erupted following the assassination of a Tunisian opposition leader Mohamed al-Barahmi were “harassed, threatened and attacked” said the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ).

The CPJ report said that the Tunisia News Network was prevented from filming protests in front of al-Barahmi’s house after the assassination on July 25. At a press conference on July 26, Tunisia's prime minister, Ali al-Arady, threatened private satellite channel Al-Hiwar al-Tunisia saying, “Your channel calls to violence, and we will take action against this channel,” CPJ said.

Yasen al-Khragy correspondent for the private Al-Tunisia channel, and Ahmed al-Sahrawy of Al-Monestiry radio station, were attacked by members of a conservative religious group on July 26 while covering an anti-government demonstration. And on July 27, at least nine journalists covering a sit-in outside the National Constituent Assembly, were physically attacked, CPJ reported.

The mounting opposition towards a free media comes as Tunisia’s Ennahada party run government is being accused by the opposition National Salvation Front of becoming a tool in the hands of radical Islamist faction within the party. Protests that intensified following Mohamed Brahmi’s assassination in July and Chokri Belaid’s in February have forced Ehnnahada to agree to talks with the opposition last week, which are to be followed by elections.   

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