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Tunisia Denies French Journalist From Entering Country

Tunisian authorities have barred a French journalist from entering the North African country, announcing Wednesday — four days before presidential and legislative elections — that she was blocked at the airport on grounds she is hostile to the regime.

Florence Beauge, a reporter specializing in North African issues for the leading French daily Le Monde, was blocked at Tunis' airport late Tuesday because she landed without proper authorization, Tunisian authorities said in a statement.

Beauge had reported from the North African country earlier this month, and her reports were deemed unfavorable by the government.

The reporter had been warned that she would not be allowed in, the statement said. It added that Beauge had conducted "dubious activities" and shown "blatant malevolence" toward Tunisia in the past.

French citizens usually don't need visas for Tunisia, but in practice foreign reporters need authorization from the government to work there.

Beauge denied that Tunisian authorities had warned her she would not be allowed into the country. She said she spent the night at the airport before returning to France on Wednesday.

"The police and Tunisair (airline) officials keeping watch of me seemed a bit embarrassed," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Paris.

Beauge said she strove to be balanced in her reports, even though Tunisian officials usually decline requests for comment, which makes reporting harder. She said she had been barred probably because of her recent articles that quoted political opponents describing intense police brutality, as well as the justice minister dismissing the allegations.

Beauge has faced antagonism from authorities in several countries across the region, which is comprised of former French colonies where the French press is closely read because there is often little freedom for local media.

Tunisia, in particular, is often criticized by human rights groups, who contend it is a police state that represses free speech and political dissent.

A tourism magnet and a strong U.S. and European diplomatic and business ally, Tunisia was listed in 154th place for media freedom by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders media watchdog earlier this week.

Most Tunisian media are government-run, or heavily censored. Foreign journalists were being closely monitored ahead before the elections Sunday. Several reporters complained about being tailed by plain-clothed police officers.

At Tunis airport, an AP reporter saw police searching the bags of incoming journalists earlier this week, apparently on the lookout for a book recently published in France about the wife of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which has been banned in Tunisia. Several opponents of the regime are also banned from meeting with reporters or from traveling abroad.

However, a senior government minister insisted earlier this week that Tunisia was inching toward democracy and free speech. Zouheir M'dhaffar, the minister for administrative reform, said the situation had already greatly improved from decades past. Police measures against the press or political opponents were "details" that would slowly solve themselves as "pluralism emerges," he said. And opponents complaining about police brutality were "attention seekers" taking advantage of the upcoming elections, he contended.

M'dhaffar also said the election Sunday would most likely be the last campaign for four-term incumbent Ben Ali.

In power since a bloodless palace coup in 1987, Ben Ali has won all his re-elections with over 90 percent of the vote. It is widely assumed that Ben Ali, who is running against three low-profile opponents, will win another five-year term Sunday.

Opposition parties authorized to field legislative candidates will likely win about a quarter of seats in parliament, M'dhaffar also said.