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Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
08TUNIS595
2008-06-03 16:09:00
CONFIDENTIAL
Embassy Tunis
Cable title:  

PRESS FREEDOM TRIAL DRAGS ON, OPPOSITION CANDIDATE

Tags:   PHUM  PGOV  PREL  KDEM  KPAO  TS 
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VZCZCXYZ0001
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHTU #0595/01 1551609
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 031609Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5093
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
						C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 000595 

SIPDIS

NEA/MAG (NARDI/HARRIS); DRL (JOHNSTONE/KLARMAN)
LONDON AND PARIS FOR NEA WATCHER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/01/2018
TAGS: PHUM PGOV PREL KDEM KPAO TS
SUBJECT: PRESS FREEDOM TRIAL DRAGS ON, OPPOSITION CANDIDATE
FACES ADDITIONAL CHARGES

REF: A. TUNIS 514

B. TUNIS 408

C. TUNIS 298

D. TUNIS 144

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

-------
Summary
-------



1. (C) In the ongoing libel cases against the editors of
opposition newspaper al-Mowqif, the defense presented its
argument at a May 31 hearing; no trial date has been set for
the plaintiffs to present their rebuttal. In a separate
court case, al-Mowqif Editor-in-Chief Nejib Chebbi is also
being sued for defamation of the judicial system stemming
from a May 3 article published by his paper. This
defamation charge is a criminal offense that could result in
prison time; the first hearing is set for June 9. Chebbi,
the founder of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party
(PDP) and that party's announced candidate for president in
the 2009 elections, contends that the charges are politically
motivated and plans to continue campaigning, despite a
proposed law that would prohibit his candidacy. End Summary.



--------------------------


Sticks and Stones...


--------------------------





2. (C) The opposition Progressive Democratic Party's (PDP)
Arabic-weekly al-Mowqif is considered one of the most
outspoken publications in Tunisia. Six separate lawsuits are
currently pending against al-Mowqif, placing its future in
doubt. In April, the editors of al-Mowqif (Chebbi and Rachid
Khachana) were sued by five vegetable oil manufacturing
companies alleging that an al-Mowqif editorial defamed their
product, resulting in a loss of revenue (Ref A). On May 31,
PolOff observed the trials in which the defense presented
written arguments in court summarizing why the five libel
cases should be dismissed. They argued that under Tunisian
law, an accusation must be made against a specific company or
individual in order for it to qualify as libel, and that the
al-Mowquif article does not meet these criteria. The article
in question quoted Algerian press reports citing the presence
of unsafe Tunisian cooking oil on the market, and asked the
Tunisian government to investigate. It did not cite a
specific company or brand. The defense attorneys also argued
that if anyone is culpable, it should be the Algerian papers
who first published the report, and that al-Mowqif's editors
should not be held accountable for merely reprinting a prior
account in compliance with journalistic norms and practices.



3. (C) A date for the next hearing, during which the
plaintiffs will present their rebuttal to the defense's
argument, has yet to be set. At the hearing, the plaintiffs'
attorney (who is representing all five oil companies) asked
the judge to appoint an examiner to study the industry and
determine what effect the al-Mowqif article had on sales in
order to better determine an appropriate fine; the judge
complied. According to Chebbi, who is a lawyer himself, the
judge's rapid acquiescence was unusual since normally the
defense would be given the opportunity to counter the
plaintiff's request. He opined that the judge's capitulation
and lack of debate signaled that the judge had already made
up her mind about the case, or had received prior
instructions on how to rule. It is worth noting that
accuracy has no bearing in libel cases; according to Tunisia
law, the sole issue is proving that the defendant damaged the
plaintiff's reputation, even if the report was true. If
found guilty, the resulting fine would deal a severe
financial blow to Chebbi and Khachana, if not bankrupt them.



--------------------------


New Defamation Case


--------------------------





4. (C) In addition to the libel suits, Chebbi, in his
capacity as the newspaper's director, has recently learned
that he is being sued for defamation of the judicial system.
The accusation carries a maximum penalty of six months in
prison and a fine. Earlier this year, Chebbi and several
other members of the PDP's political bureau were driving back
to Tunis from southern Tunisia when the driver accidentally
hit some camels that wandered into the road, killing three of
them. He was subsequently given a suspended sentence of one
month in prison. According to a May 3 al-Mowqif article
about the incidient, both the charges and the sentence were
politically motivated. The first hearing will be on June 6.




--------------------------


Comment


--------------------------





5. (C) It is unlikely that the PDP's troubles are a
coincidence. Rather, they may represent punishment for the
party's support of Chebbi's presidential candidacy. Chebbi
has frequently been the subject of vindictive and demeaning
articles carried in government-owned or influenced media
outlets. If found guilty, the fines would be devastating for
Chebbi and Khachana personally. Chebbi is a well-known
lawyer and political figure, whose domestic and international
standing provide some level of protection. We consider it
unlikely the GOT will sentence Chebbi to prison given the
likely international response to such an action. Rather,
this is more likely an attempt to intimidate him and the PDP,
and to tie up their time and resources. Nevertheless, it
remains to be seen how far the GOT will got to ensure there
is no real opposition in the 2009 elections. We will be
following the case closely. End Comment.
GODEC