TUNIS — The controversial new director of a state-owned Tunisian press group knocked one of its journalists with his car, the interior ministry said Thursday, but a witness claimed the victim was rammed on purpose and hospitalised.
"We have been informed of a traffic accident involving the director (Lotfi Touati) of Dar Assabah and a journalist. We have two contradictory accounts of what happened," said ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche.
"According to the driver, the journalist intentionally threw himself in front of the car, while the journalist claimed he was deliberately hit," Tarrouche explained, adding that the claims were being investigated.
Rafik Abdallah, who witnessed the incident, accused Touati of ramming his colleague, the journalist Khalil Hannechi, and then dragging him over a distance of several dozen metres (yards).
"Khalil Hannechi asked to speak with Lotfi Touati, who was in his car. He categorically refused, put his foot on the accelerator and drove with (the journalist) on the bonnet for 200 metres," he told AFP.
"Then he jammed on the breaks, and (Hannechi) fell off the car and bashed his head," Abdallah said, adding that the journalist, who writes for the Arabic-language daily Assabah, was taken to hospital.
A trade union representative for the Dar Assabah group, Sana Farhat, deplored what she called "a criminal act."
Another colleague, Jamel Ferchichi, who visited the hospital, said Hannechi was in a state of shock but that the doctors were "reassuring" about his condition, while awaiting more in-depth test results.
Touati was not immediately reachable for comment on Thursday.
The young journalists' association, to which Hannechi belongs, branded the incident "attempted murder," calling for Touati to be prosecuted and accusing the Islamist-led government that appointed him of sharing responsibility.
The Dar Assabah press group, which the Tunisian state took control of after the revolution last year that toppled former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, owns Tunisian dailies Assabah and French-language Le Temps.
Before the uprising it was controlled by Beni Ali's son-in-law Sakhr El Materi.
Editorial staff have been up in arms over Touati's appointment last month, considering him too close to the ruling Islamist party Ennahda.
International NGOs have criticised the Tunisian government for seeking to manipulate the media, including by appointing new directors to head public media groups without consulting their staff.
The authorities say they are working to remove from the media landscape those who worked for Ben Ali.
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