Tunisian union calls general strike after detention of journalist

A Tunisian journalist was detained on Friday for accusing the public prosecutor on television late last month of fabricating evidence implicating a cameraman in an egg-throwing attack on a minister, prompting a union call to strike.

The cameraman, Mourad Meherzi, is on trial for complicity in the egg attack on Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk.

Meherzi, who spent three weeks in detention before being released on bail last week, insists he was merely doing his job in recording the incident, with Nasreddine Shili, the film-maker who hurled the egg, vouching for him.

The minister's lawyer acknowledged last week that Meherzi was only doing his job, being at the scene of the incident, but the cameraman is still on trial and Shili remains in custody.

Heni's lawyer Moufida Belghrith told AFP, "The committal order was given even before our statements and the questioning of Heni. This detention is illegal."

Several dozen journalists and lawyers prevented police from executing the order by blocking access to the judge's office. But the security forces finally managed to detain Heni, who was led away in a police convoy amid shouting from protesters.

Another of Heni's lawyers, Abdelaziz Essid, said he could be released on bail of 2 000 dinars, but not before Monday morning.

Continued pressure on media

The national union of Tunisian journalists called a general strike, only the second in its history, in protest against Heni's detention and to denounce pressure on the media by the Islamist-led government. It also urged the country's media to boycott "all the activities of government".

Just hours after his arrest, Heni renewed his accusations despite the risk of being jailed. "I am going to present to the judge two documents that prove what I have declared about the allegations of the public prosecutor Tarek Chkioua," he said on his Facebook page.

"Chkioua argued that the detention of my colleague Mourad Meherzi was decided on the basis of confessions about his involvement in a plot to attack the minister of culture," Heni added. "There is no proof. On the contrary, (Meherzi) has even refused to sign the statement (following his interrogation). I will ask that Tarek Chkioua is tried for placing someone in detention without any legal basis."

Heni was a fierce critic of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's former strongman toppled in Tunisia's mass uprising in January 2011 that unleashed the Arab Spring. But he was never imprisoned, despite constant police harassment.

Since the revolution, he has regularly accused the Islamist party Ennahda, which heads the coalition government, of manipulating the courts and security forces for political ends.

Calls for freedom of expression

The country's powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) on Friday strongly criticised attacks on the freedom of expression.

"(UGTT leader Houcine) Abassi expresses his astonishment over the successive trials of journalists and voices his concern. This sector is unable to evolve in light of these attempts to make it submit," the UGTT stated.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also slammed the government over the prosecution of journalists for expressing their opinions, citing the case of Heni and another journalist, Zouhaer al-Jiss. Since early 2012, HRW said the authorities have used the same "repressive legal arsenal" to stifle free speech that was employed under the Ben Ali regime, and that "numerous journalists, bloggers, artists, and intellectuals have been prosecuted".

The attack on the culture minister took place at a memorial ceremony on August 16 marking 40 days since the death of a fellow artist, with Meherzi filming the attack and the images subsequently broadcast by Astrolab TV, for whom he was working.

The act was reportedly in protest at the inadequate response by the minister, an independent in the Islamist-led coalition government, to attacks on artists by extremists who deem their work offensive. – Sapa

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Guest Author

Tension over who’s boss of courts

In a letter, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng questions whether Justice Minister Ronald Lamola has acted constitutionally

SABC sued over ‘bad’ clip of Ramaphosa

A senior employee at the public broadcaster wants compensation for claims of ‘sabotage’

Soundtrack to a pandemic: Africa’s best coronavirus songs

Drawing on lessons from Ebola, African artists are using music to convey public health messaging. And they are doing it in style

In East Africa, the locusts are coming back for more

In February the devastating locust swarms were the biggest seen in East Africa for 70 years. Now they’re even bigger

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories