Tunisian government shuts down Radio Kalima



 
Tunisia has shut down the independent radio station Kalima days after it began broadcasting via satellite. The government says the station was "exploiting public communications," but rights organizations both in Tunisia and abroad say it is yet another move to limit freedom of speech.
 
By MOHSEN AL-MEZLINI
 
ben sedrine kalima
Kalima radio manager Siham Bensedrine.

TUNIS, February 5, 2009 (MENASSAT) — "The Tunisian general prosecutor came last Friday with more than 20 plain-clothes security agents, and confiscated the bulk of our equipment," Lutfi Heidouri, an editor with Kalima online magazine told MENASSAT. "Then they vanished as quickly as they had come, but not before closing the building with a red wax seal."

At the time of the closure, the state prosecutor told Radio Kalima management they were complying with a September 2008 court ruling that said the courts needed to "control the general conditions" of the media environment.

"Media organizations exploiting public communications networks, and access networks, under the guise of contributing to the state's public duties" were to be shutdown, if not totally then at least partially, the ruling said.

Station staff told MENASSAT the problems began when Kalima, which was already well-known as independent news website, started broadcasting radio via the Hotbird 8 satellite system on January 28.

That very same day, local staff was denied entry into the station.

Legal disputes

Station manager Siham Bensedrine said Kalima Radio and its online magazine have consistently refused be a government mouthpiece in their news coverage.

"We expected the authorities' reaction would be harsh at some point, and we were ready to make sacrifices," she told MENASSAT.

But Heidouri said the government went well beyond the scope of their duties in executing the court's ruling.

"Kalima staff had their mobile phone lines disabled moments before the security agents arrived at the station to shut things down," he said.

The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights joined several international rights organizations in accusing the Tunisian authorities of violating the civil rights of the radio staff, as well as those of the radio station's guests who were present at the time.

Scenes of the events were broadcast on Al-Jazeera and posted on several social networking sites, among them Facebook.

Tunisian authorities have since accused the station of broadcasting without a permit, adding that the station was receiving foreign funding that general prosecutors said was suspicious.

Kalima management has countered these allegations by saying that the radio broadcasts primarily from Italy, and as such, most of the Tunisian legal regulations being used to shut the station down don't apply – a charge the Tunisian authorities obviously reject.

Government intimidation

Kalima station manager Bensedrine described the station's content as "focusing on current social issues that people suffer from," with an emphasis on "the corruption that runs through out the Tunisian society."

"We've crossed several government ‘red lines,’" Bensedrine said.

In the days since the January 30 closure, a source in the Tunisian judiciary has told MENASSAT that the general prosecutor will start an investigation against Bensedrine for "launching a radio station and beginning to broadcast without express legal permission."

Meanwhile, human rights groups are closely watching the case as the Tunisian authorities have begun a wider intimidation campaign against Radio Kalima employees.

The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon about Omar Mistiri, Kalima's editor in chief. It said, "He was threatened with a knife by someone believed to be from the police, after he was verbally attacked over the last few days by strangers surrounding the station."

Kalima staff reporter Fatin Hamdi said that there has been a regular police presence around his house ever since the closure.

Hamdi said her father had been called in for questioning by police and told to pressure Hamdi into quitting her job and her journalism studies.

"Bring her back home and out of the capital," Hamdi said, quoting the police.

But in a phone call with MENASSAT, the journalist said that "intimidation tactics will not work with me."

Reactions


The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has demanded that the Tunisian government  put an immediate end to the station's siege.

"The PR campaign by the Tunisian government to polish its image, will not overshadow the fact that Tunisia is one of the most oppressive countries when it comes to freedom of press," said Mohamad Abdeldayim, CPJ's Middle East & North Africa coordinator.

The organization sent a letter to US President Barack Obama in early January asking him to address what they said was "one of the worst environments for press freedoms."

The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights said the government had an obligation to "guarantee freedom of movement for the journalists and the station's visitors."

It  demanded an end to the aggression and a serious investigation into previous assaults against Kalima staff.

The Tunisian government has issued no further comments about the situation.


► FROM MENASSAT'S ARCHIVES:

'They are fighting a losing battle'
Posted on 24/11/2008 - 19:48
Last October, the online webzine Kalima, one of the very few independent Tunisian media, suffered an attack so severe that it completely destroyed all content. MENASSAT talked to Kalima's editor in chief, Sihem Bensedrine, about the latest waves of cyber-attacks and the general state of press freedom in Tunisia. siham bensedrin