Last week, dozens of journalists protested in Tunis in solidarity with two Radio Mosaique journalists who were interrogated by the country’s security forces.
Haythem El Mekki and Elyess Gharbi were picked up after they criticised police recruitment in the country after a deadly shooting near a synagogue on Djerba island earlier this month saw a naval guard shoot dead two visitors and a security guard.
Authorities have previously arrested Radio Mosaique’s Director General Nourredine Boutar and handed another of its reporters, Khalifa Guesmi, a five-year sentence. Boutar was questioned about the editorial line of the station, Guesmi on its coverage of terror-related incidents.
“Mosaique FM is the most listened to radio station in Tunisia and their tone didn’t change after the July 2021 move,” journalist Firas Kefi from Nawaat media told MEMO.
“They are still criticising whichever government is managing the country so that’s the main reason for the arrest of their CEO and the lawsuit against two of their journalists.”
In 2021 Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended the parliament and dismissed the government in what was widely described as a power grab.
Prior to this, Tunisia was seen as the exception in the region, a country heading towards democracy as others around it spiralled into fighting. But a decade since the start of the uprising, Saied set about reversing any democratic gains.
In the firing line was the judiciary, which lost guarantees for its independence, and high-profile opponents who have been prosecuted on spurious charges.
Freedom of expression has struggled to find a place in Saied’s Tunisia. One year after the power grab, Tunisia tumbled 21 places on Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom Index.
At a protest on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in January 2022 police attacked protesters, including a French correspondent who had managed to capture their heavy-handed response. Mathieu Galtier was dragged between two police vehicles, kicked and sprayed with tear gas.
Things were going from bad to worse. The Al Jazeera office in Tunis was stormed and shut down, opposition politicians no longer invited onto state television.
Tunisia’s journalist union SNJT says that some 20 journalists currently face prosecution for their work.
One of these is Salah Attia, editor of Al Ray Al Jadid, who has been charged by a military court of “accusing a public official of illegal acts without proof” after he told Al Jazeera that President Saied gave the green light for the army to shut down Tunisia’s labour union office.
“Working in Tunisia today is risky,” says Firas, who covers migration issues for Nawaat. “All indicators are showing that the situation is getting worse.”
“Last year many journalists were subject to punitive measures for their work or were violated whilst doing their job. The climate is getting tougher, so we can expect anything.”Lawyers, politicians and activists have been prosecuted under decree law 54, a vague, broadly worded piece of legislation that promises heavy prison sentences for cybercrimes such as publishing “fake news”.
Late last year journalist Nizar Bahloul, chief editor of the Business News website, became the first journalist to be questioned under the legislation after she authored an opinion piece criticising the prime minister.
The law, imposed by Saied in 2022, has been criticised by rights groups as another layer of censorship. Yet it was a free press that was one of the biggest gains of Tunisia’s Arab Spring – there was a time that the North African country was known for having the freest press in the Arab world.
“Journalists are resisting but the situation is difficult,” adds Firas. “Press and free speech freedoms were a real asset of the period 2011 to 2021 so it’s not that easy to remove. But the media is now targeted with decree law 54 under which they can arrest anyone.”