(Photo: Sihem Bensedrine of Kalima. Photo courtesy of PDP)

Tunisian plainclothes police surrounded and raided the offices of a just-launched satellite radio station and detained one of its journalists last week, the latest affront on independent journalism in the country, say the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) and IFEX members.

On 27 January, the coordinator of Radio Kalima, Dhafer Otay, was abducted by plainclothes police officers outside the station’s premises in Tunis. Six hours later, he was released without charge, but threatened with arrest if he continued working on the radio project.

The standoff at the offices, which also house two human rights groups, IFEX member the Observatory of Press, Publishing, and Creative Freedom (OLPEC) and the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), intensified the following day with heavier police presence.

Dozens of officers obstructed those who tried to enter the building, including high-profile lawyer Mohamed Abbou and journalist Slim Boukhdhir. One activist, Makhlouf Zouhayr, who had come to express his solidarity with the Kalima staff, was severely beaten by police, while Omar Mestiri, managing editor of Kalima (the online publication), was attacked when he tried to stop them.

Some of Kalima’s reporters and contributors stayed in the building overnight, fearing that if they left, they would be unable to continue broadcasting.

Then on 30 January, police, accompanied by Tunisia’s deputy prosecutor, raided Kalima’s studios, seized equipment, forced staff out and sealed the building. Police have also allegedly surrounded the homes of two female Kalima reporters, threatening and insulting them. One Radio Kalima journalist, Hatam Boukesra, was arrested and detained for eight hours, reports the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

Mestiri, who tried to travel to Europe on 1 February, had his passport and boarding pass confiscated, only to be returned to him when his plane had departed.

At present, Kalima’s offices remain sealed and surrounded by police.

Radio Kalima was started by the same team that runs the locally blocked online news site Kalima. The station began satellite broadcasts early last week, in addition to their previously web-only radio programming. Sihem Bensedrine, a staunch free expression advocate and editor of Kalima, told the International Press Institute (IPI) she’s convinced that the launch prompted the police assault.

This is obviously a way to silence this radio … They (the authorities) can control all things on the land. They cannot control the sky, and for this reason they are reacting like this. We will continue broadcasting on satellite even after what happened today, and Radio Kalima will never be silenced,” Bensedrine said.

Abbou, who spent more than two years in jail for denouncing the increasing use of torture since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali seized power in 1987, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) the kidnapping of Otay and the raid had no legal basis. “This is a new reminder that there is zero tolerance for independent journalism in this country,” he said.

The European branch of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) is asking the EU to cease trading with Tunisia. “We firmly condemn the dictatorship methods put in place by the Tunisian government, and we ask the EU to block immediately all commercial relations with Tunisia unless basic human rights are guaranteed,” said Mariano Sanchez, president of AMARC-Europe.

TMG is calling international attention to the Kalima siege and demanding that the authorities stop the harassment of the Kalima staff. “These events come as the latest affront in a long history of violations of the right to a free press in Tunisia,” said TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera. “Journalists and human rights activists are frequently victims of harassment, arbitrary violence and censorship.