World Press Freedom Day

Tunisia: Media Under Pressure

Since 25 July 2021, freedom of the press is dwindling in Tunisia. Pressure is brought to bear on journalists critical of the government, new laws are passed with an eye to criminalising their reporting activities, it has become impossible to communicate with the authorities… These are some of the problems encountered by the men and women who have been fighting for thirteen years now to preserve the freedom of speech gained with the 2011 revolution.

16 February 2023. Tunisian journalists demonstrated in front of the Prime Minister’s office in Tunis to defend freedom of expression and against the persecution of journalists, denouncing the use of Decree 54 to criminalise their statement
Fethi Belaid/AFP

‘You aren’t on the list; you can’t come in.’ These words aren’t spoken by a security guard at a VIP soirée but by a communications officer at a session of the new National Council of Regions and Districts. He is addressing Tunisian and foreign journalists come to cover the inaugural session, on 19 April 2024, of the second parliamentary chamber, elected one month earlier by indirect suffrage.

‘Only a few media, often State-controlled and carefully selected, were allowed to cover that opening session’, deplores Mourad Zeghidi, a journalist with the private radio station IFM and a TV columnist, who tried to send in a crew. ‘It’s unacceptable, inasmuch as they already prevented our covering the opening session of the newly elected parliament in March 2023,’ he aided. Last year, the National Union of Journalists had organised a protest in front of Parliament, and they had finally been let in for the following plenary sessions.

Unclear censorship principles

A year later, by dint of encountering refusals from certain officials, discomfiture and habituation to this kind of procedure had become the norm. As concerns the Regional Council, a group of foreign journalists spent half a day trying to get hold of the second chamber’s press officers in order to be added to that notorious list of authorised professionals, but in vain. A lack of communication that Mourad Zeghidi finds hard to explain:

We have a devil of a time getting in touch with the authorities to get their side of the picture. For example, we tried to get an answer from the Ministry of Industry on its decision to take phosphogypsum off the list of dangerous products discharged at Gabès when it hasn’t ceased to be one. We had no reply. No refusal, no reaction at all.

The journalist is at a complete loss ‘because we do manage to carry on with our work on other issues. For example, we did a program about little known political prisoners detained for long periods in various affairs, such as the plot against national security,1 and there were no reprisals,’ he admits. Yet on 24 April, the anti-terrorist pole’s examining magistrate again declared that the media were not allowed to speak of the developments of that affair, despite the closure of the investigation on 12 April. A similar prohibition had already been pronounced in 2023 with no further explanation.

The principles of censorship are constantly changing and the bans on covering this or that event rarely justified. For example, very few media have been able to approach the hundred Palestinian wounded brought to Tunisia for treatment since the bombings of the Gaza Strip began after the Hamas attack on 7 October. While the media were able to cover from afar their arrival at Tunis airport on 18 December, the blackout has been total ever since. ‘That decision to make them inaccessible is hard to explain. During the various wars in Libya after 2011, we were always able to contact the Libyan wounded from the different sides who came to be cared for in Tunisian clinics’, journalist Bassam Bounenni points out. The possible reasons are many and varied: risk of infiltration or traumatising exposure for the patients, fear of the journalists instrumentalising the Palestinian question, lack of a person of confidence to authorise visits… These are unofficial motives imagined between journalists for lack of better explanations from the authorities. The only interview that circulated was with a Palestinian wounded little girl, heard on national radio in April, supervised in the studio by a Red Crescent spokesperson and by the girl’s escort.

From cybercrime to repression

Another subject which receives little coverage: the sub-Saharan migrants living in makeshift camps deep in the olive groves of El-Amra and Jebiniana in South-East Tunisia, not far from Sfax. This situation is the consequence of a heavy-handed security policy put into practice since February 2023 following a presidential press release denouncing the arrival ‘of hordes of sub-Saharan migrants’ whose goal ‘is to modify Tunisian demography’. Since then, there have been many more ID checks targeting unpapered individuals and many migrants have lost their jobs and their homes. Sub-Saharan migrants who reach Tunisia via Algeria and Libya now head directly for the olive groves, until such time as they can afford to travel to the Italian coast. ‘Their journey to Sfax and the olive groves is hardly covered by the media. This has favoured a rising hostility towards the migrants,’ Bassam Bounenni explains. For fear of displeasing the authorities, of being arrested on the spot or simply for lack of the means to do so, very few Tunisian media go down there to cover a subject which remains very sensitive. There are frequent debates on radio and TV, in which racism sometimes rears its head.

What with self-censorship, lack of communication with authorities and under-reporting of certain subjects, it is hard to measure the extent of the freedom to inform in Tunisia. ‘Concretely, we go on working. But there are journalists who wonder each time when it will be their turn to have problems’, is the way Morad Zeghi half-jokingly sums up the situation. The radio station he works for is no exception.

On 24 April, Khouloud Mabrouk, an IFM reporter was summoned to appear before a unit of the National Guard where she was questioned about an interview she had done with a former minister, Mabrouk Korchid, and with Samir Dilou, one of the attorneys defending the prisoners accused of plotting against national security. While she remains at liberty, she is being investigated, nonetheless. On 31 March, it was a lawyer and commentator for that same station, Sonia Dahmani, who came under investigation on account of declarations deemed likely to be detrimental to public security and to be considered defamatory, as defined by decree 54. This decree was promulgated in 2022, ostensibly to combat cybercrime and the spreading of fake news on the social networks. However, it is used to repress journalists and dissident voices on the networks. Sonia Dahmani was also summoned in January 2024 for other declarations, based on that same decree. Both affairs are the consequence of questions she posed on the air concerning governmental activities.

On 10 January, another reporter for the same channel, Zied El-Heni was released after ten days in gaol. Accused of defamation for having called the Minister of Commerce a ‘cazi’ – Arabic slang for ‘deadbeat’ – he was given six-month suspended sentence. But since his release, he has had to stop working for IFM radio by mutual agreement.

State versus jounalists?

Right now, a journalist employed by radio CAP FM, Mohamed Boughalleb, is serving a six-month prison term. He was sentenced for having ‘impugned the honour’ of a civil servant employed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs after having questioned him concerning foreign travel with the minister who seems, quite unjustifiably, to have been paid for by the institution. All these cases attest to a ‘regression’ of freedom of the press, to quote a communiqué by Reporters Without Borders dealing with the imprisonment of this journalist and denouncing a disproportionate sentence, considering the nature of the alleged offence". The tendency to resort to prison sentences is obviously a threat aimed at those who take their role seriously as journalists,’ says the RWB communiqué.

Another new tendency is also emerging in these hasty trials of journalists. The lawsuits often originate with ministries or other official instances. This was the case for journalist Hayhem El-Mekki, well-known satirist on radio Mosaïque FM, summoned to appear in court at Sfax after a complaint was lodged against him by the Sfax Hospital for ‘unauthorised posting of photos in order to sow disorder’.

‘I do not understand why I am blamed for discussing a problem which is public knowledge, i.e. the overcrowding of the Sfax hospital morgue on account of the repeated sinking of migrant boats’, Mekki protests because he didn’t even post an image on the subject. And the tweet he posted is not the one he is accused of and the screenshot in the prosecution’s dossier comes from an unidentified account.

Despite my detailed interrogation by the brigade, I was summoned to appear before a judge. I would never have thought a hospital could lodge a complaint of this sort.

His hearing is set for 16 May. In his view, this is a form of harassment, related to a second summons received last year along with two of his radio colleagues in the context of another affair. Yet Haythem Mekki had reduced his broadcast time following the imprisonment of the head of Mosaïque FM, Noureddine Boutar, released after three months in gaol for an affair of money-laundering and for that plot against national security. Today, despite the reduction of his airtime, he feels he is still liable to fall afoul of these sham trials.

I don’t think these affairs are the result of direct orders from above, but rather are due to entities which want to settle accounts with the press or curry favour with the powers that be. And the present climate of repression allows them to take action.

The red lines are so vague that journalist Bassem Bounenni believes that there is no ‘rhyme or reason to the censorship, which is all the more disquieting.’

Decree 54, a sword of Damocles

In fact, according to reports by several NGOs, decree 54 is often used to criminalise journalistic reporting when there already exist decrees 115 and 116 regulating the profession. Bloggers and surfers who criticise the government on the social networks are also targeted by decree 54. The actual number of cases is hard to determine, according to Salsabil Chellali, director of the Tunis office of Human Rights Watch. ‘We don’t know in detail all the affairs which fall under decree 54. So we can only account for those which the attorneys publicise or which are denounced by the victims and the media. Some people prefer not to make their case public,’ she explains. The NGO has identified four convictions based on that decree and nine journalists investigated and prosecuted. In all, 28 people are concerned by that decree, according to figures provided by Human Rights Watch. The Union of Tunisian Journalists has counted 40. According to Salsabil Chellali these figures could be revised upwards as the presidential election draws near. The exact date is not yet known, but it is supposed to be held between now and October.

Decree 54 is essentially a deterrent. It gives the impression that there are red lines the press mustn’t cross but it doesn’t really say what those red lines are. During this electoral period the fear is to see more and more government bodies using this decree to stifle any debate, to gag critical voices.

Outside the field of journalism, Abir Moussi has been jailed for six months now without a trial based on that same decree. She is President of the Free Destourian Party and a major opponent of President Kais Saied. The Instance supérieure indépendante pour les élections (ISIE) filed a complaint against her in January 2024 for something she said about the electoral process in 2023. Another opponent, Jaouhar Ben Mabarek, who had been held without trial for over a year in connection with that alleged plot against national security, received a mandatory sentence of six months in February 2024 following a complaint also filed by the ISIE in January 2024 after he had called the 2022 parliamentary elections a ‘mascarade’ and a ‘putchist coup’.

1Since 11 February 2023, several political opponents have been arrested and placed in detentive prevention, accused of having fomented a plot against National Security. Eight detainees are still awaiting trial. Their defence committee and the human rights NGOs have shown that the prosecution’s case is empty and that the whole affair is one of political harassment destined to do away with the opposition.