Almost all freedoms in Tunisia have evaporated, leaving only the freedom of the media, but today it is in severe distress.
President Kais Saied has repeatedly criticised the media in his country on several occasions. The issue began with hints here and there, but gradually turned into something resembling an organised incitement campaign. Saied has put the media “in his mind” as the Egyptians say, targeting them and can no longer help but criticise them every chance he gets.
A few weeks ago, he harshly criticised the official public media during his meeting with the Director General of Radio and Television, when he unleashed all of his anger on the editorial line, considering the way the news is arranged “is not innocent”. He even made the same accusation last week in a ministerial meeting, when he criticised giving priority in the news to the back-to-school news and high prices, saying it would have been more appropriate to focus on the security services’ measures against immigration and human trafficking. Not only did he criticise the television company, but even called on it, as well as all of the media outlets in the country, to what he called “engaging in the national liberation battle” which is led by him, of course, and which no one knows what it is about or who it is against.
It was only a few days ago that the President was back at it again, stressing that the television company, with its first and second channels, should be “patriotic” (have they become traitors now, or spies?) and saying that his words “are not an interference in the editorial line” adopted by the two channels, and called on the company to “engage in the national liberation line”. Saied did not stop at the public media but, rather, accused some radio stations, meaning the private ones that still maintain, despite everything, some critical or satirical voices, of having “descended into campaigns” that he said aimed “to distort and confuse public opinion”.
As if the Head of State’s constant complaining about the media and his declared frustration with it and its staff was not enough; as if the cases brought by a number of ministers against journalists are not enough; and as if the Ministers of Interior, Justice and Information Technology issued an unprecedented joint statement threatening social media sites, later joined by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but now the new Prime Minister, Ahmed Hachani, made sure to immediately issue a statement, that was as unsuccessful as his first media appearance in a school, to express his dissatisfaction with merely a satirical cartoon of him. Although he was quick to reject the prosecution of its illustrator, he could not hide his hatred for him by claiming that he did not know the illustrator at all, and that the investigation against him was based on a bad check. This was a clear attempt at defamation, not to mention his interference in the conduct of a case that was still in its early stages, and it was assumed that he had no knowledge of its details.
The journalism body in Tunisia has been lenient and delayed in defending itself and, unfortunately, woke up to it late. In the beginning, journalist Saleh Attiya was imprisoned for three months because of a television interview after a military trial, and not many people took action with the required determination, choosing political considerations over professional ones. This was followed by other cases: an unprecedented ruling against journalist Khalifa Al-Qasimi, sentencing him to five years in prison for refusing to disclose the source of his information in an investigation by him into a terrorist operation. The young journalist, Shatha Al-Hajj Mubarak, was also imprisoned on the grounds of her alleged involvement in a company specialising in producing media content, in addition to the arrest of Noureddine Boutar, director of the private Mosaique radio station, without a clear charge before his temporary release on a record-high bail. There have also been persecutions of journalists, including Ilyes Gharbi and Haythem El-Makki, not to mention the cases filed by government ministers against Mohamed Boughlab and Mounia Arfaoui because of critical articles or radio comments. Last, but not least, is the arrest of cartoonist, Taoufik Omrane, because of a satirical drawing of the Prime Minister, and his interrogation before his release.
Speaking of the cartoonist, Taoufik Omrane, who was not spared despite his blog posts that did not oppose the coup by Kais Saied posted two years ago, the man said he was subjected to questions during his interrogation that we may have thought had disappeared; questions such as: Do you pray? Do you drink alcohol? Does your wife wear the hijab or niqab? This is a gross violation of the most basic rules of respect for personal freedom and the essence of the case raised against him in the first place.
This clear official attack against critical or dissenting voices, from which public television has not been spared, and which has not hosted any voices which are not supportive of the President for months but, instead, has given free rein to the shallow voices of hypocrisy. The Journalists’ Syndicate has condemned this in several statements, can only establish an atmosphere of fear and terror that prompts many to resort to self-censorship or silence. This is at a time when all journalists are already complaining about the absence of normal conditions conducive for them to do their jobs, the least of which is the lack of an official body to which they can refer back to for information, comments or clarifications on any issue, as there is no media official in the Carthage Palace and no director of the presidential office.
No one but the President can speak!
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 26 September, 2023.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.