TUNIS — Riot police in Tunisia used tear gas and truncheons to break up a protest in central Tunis by about 200 people Friday, attacking reporters and photographers covering the event.
Uniformed and plain-clothes officers charged after firing volleys of tear gas canisters at the protesters, mainly youths, as they denounced the transitional government and called for “a new revolution”.
Dog handlers and even a light armoured car took part in the operation, at on the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
As demonstrators an bystanders alike fled the police charge, officers surrounded individuals, some of them on the ground, kicking and beating them with truncheons and sticks.
A number of journalists, including an AFP photographer who said police struck him with iron bars, were also beaten up. The Tunisian journalists union and Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders denounced the police assault.
Tunisia’s National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) said 15 media professionals had been attacked as they covered demonstrations on Thursday and Friday, updating their earlier figure of 14.
Tunisia’s interior ministry issued a statement Friday apologising to “journalists and citizens involuntarily assaulted” and said it was opening an inquiry into who had been responsible.
The demonstration was called by supporters of former interior minister Farhat Rajhi, who caused uproar earlier this week with controversial remarks warning of a potential military coup, which he has since disowned.
Rajhi had spoken in terms of a coup in the making should an Islamist political party win elections on July 24.
“If the Islamist movement Ennahda (Renaissance) wins the next elections, the regime will be military,” Rajhi said in a video posted on Facebook overnight Wednesday, comments he confirmed Thursday on radio Express FM.
But Rajhi on Friday distanced himself from his remarks.
He had not intended “to create a climate of tension during this particular period” of political transition in the north African country, he said.
“But unfortunately I was trapped by the two journalists (who posted the Facebook interview), who recorded me without telling me and thus failed to respect professional ethics,” he added.
“I have called for calm on Tunisian radios,” Rahji told AFP.
“My statements were just purely hypothetical and not directed at anybody and I am not responsible for interpretations.”
The defence ministry denounced his comments Friday.
“These remarks represent a great danger for the Tunisian people’s revolution and for the current and future security of the country,” said the ministry, in a statement reported by the official TAP news agency.
At least two press photographers were caught up in Friday’s violence
“I was assaulted by four police on the stairs of the paper La Presse,” AFP photographer Fathi Belaid said.
“They seized two cameras and a portable computer and hit me on the head with iron bars,” he added.
Another photographer, Mohamed El-Hammi of the EPA agency, said police had beaten him up and taken his camera.
“I can’t move my back any more it hurts so much,” he told AFP before going for treatment.
On Thursday Associated Press photographer Hassan Dridi said police had kicked and punched him to the ground after he tried to photograph another police action against demonstrators.
Police dispersed around 300 pro-Rajhi demonstrators on Thursday.
The statement from the Tunisia’s SNJT said uniformed and plain-clothed officers had targeted local and international reporters and photographers covering the recent protests.
Officers had broken cameras and chased journalists as far as the entrance to the offices of the newspaper, La Presse, said the union, denouncing the police action as a “crime against freedom of the press”.
Journalists from Al-Jazeera, Reuters news agency, the Arab-language El-Sahafa and Tunisia’s La Presse newspapers were among those assaulted, said the union.
In Paris, Reporters Without Borders said the violence was reminiscent of the Ben Ali regime and called on the transitional government to rein in the security forces.