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This article examines the alarming trend of press freedom being at great risk in Tunisia under President Kais Saied's authoritarian rule.
In the fall of 2019, Kais Saied‘s election was a decisive victory, yet from that point, he has increasingly adopted an authoritarian style of governance and curtailed liberties.
According to an unsettling report released by Amnesty International in November 2021, President Saied routinely abuses Tunisian military tribunals. Saied has been using his control over the military judicial system, as supreme leader of the armed forces and overseer of all military structures, to penalize dissenters including political activists and journalists.
For offenses such as criticizing the army or inciting disobedience among troops, offenders could receive a sentence of up to three years in jail, according to the code of military justice.
Since Saied’s July decision to propose a new constitution that increases his presidential powers, liberties have been steadily eroding under his administration.
Experts and journalists worry that Tunisia is fast becoming an authoritarian state with limited freedoms as a result of Saied’s erratic crackdowns on the liberties.
Several independent organizations and journalists complained about the use of force by the police during demonstrations at the outset of 2022. Influential media personalities are now included in this crackdown.
What is happening?
Since 2011, Tunisia has seen a dramatic shift in its media landscape. In 2014, a new constitution – largely seen as a cornerstone of the post-revolution change towards democracy – was put into place that guaranteed rights, including freedom of expression, for all citizens of Tunisia, and these rights have been upheld by subsequent decree-laws.
However, since Saied was sworn in in October 2019, his commitment to press freedom has been questionable. While he promised to uphold Tunisians’ rights and freedoms, his presidential palace denies journalists access to press conferences despite protests.
“Intimidation of journalists has become normalized,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote in its 2022 Press Freedom Index of Tunisia. Reporters confront violence in street demonstrations while a crackdown on opposition voices continues.
In the most recent arrest, on the evening of February 23, police stormed the home of prominent dissident and critic of President Kais Saied, Jaouhar Ben Mbarak – leader of a movement called Citizens against the Coup. According to Al-Jazeera, Dalila Msaddek – lawyer and sister to Ben Mbarak – stated that her father had also been briefly apprehended by officers.
Ben Mbarak was initially an ally in the president’s successful 2019 election campaign, but has since become one of his most persistent critics.
Throughout February, figures with connections to Ennahda Movement and its allies have been arrested en-masse. Among those detained are political activists, two judges, and the director of the well-known private radio station. Additionally, an influential business person was detained.
Who are the targets?
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch stated that on February 11, Khayam Turki and Abdelhamid Jelassi were taken into custody under a terrorism law that does not provide sufficient protection from the maltreatment of captives. Both were interrogated regarding their interactions with foreign entities.
Two days later, former justice minister, Nourredine Bhiri of the Ennahda party, was apprehended due to charges of alleged attempts to “seek to change the nature of the state.”
On the same day, authorities arrested the director of popular radio station Mosaïque FM, Nourredine Boutar, citing illicit enrichment.
The detention of Boutar is thought to be in response to the inflammatory tone adopted by ‘Midi Show,’ a daily broadcast produced by the radio station. According to Msaddek, Boutar’s lawyer, police questioned him over the editorial content of Mosaïque and its employment of journalists.
On February 13, the Tunisian authorities arrested Lazhar Akremi, a veteran in the field of law, activism, and government. He is facing charges of allegedly conspiring against both national and international security.
February 15 marked the arrest of Walid Jallad, a former parliamentarian and president of a football club. He was accused of money laundering and illicit enrichment. Mabrouk Korchid, Jallad’s lawyer, declared that the anti-terrorism squad questioned him regarding his political actions and associations with those who are critical of Saied.
Issam Chebbi and Chaima Issa, two well-known opposition figures, were detained on February 22. Issam Chebbi, the leader of the Republican Party, was reportedly apprehended by police while shopping with his wife, while Chaima Issa, a key figure in the 2011 uprising, was detained inside her vehicle after police surrounded it, according to Reuters.
A critical situation
Following the arrests, Saied released a video in which he attacked the National Salvation Front opposition coalition, which includes Ben Mbarak and Issa.
He called it “a paid campaign,” noting that “Tunisia wants to get rid of these criminals.”
After its 2011 revolt, Tunisia was once regarded as a forerunner in press freedoms; however, the North African country has since fallen more than 20 places in Reporters Without Borders press index and is now ranked 94th out of 180 countries.
“The treatment of Tunisia’s media is deteriorating day by day,” Khaled Drareni, RSF’s North Africa representative told VOA News.
Independent journalist Wejdene Bouabdallah told Fanack that since Saied’s power grab in July, the limits on press freedoms have become more ambiguous.
“When Ben Ali was in power, it was clear which topics would cause controversy and where censorship should be applied,” she said. “Now, with a president presenting himself as democratic, yet behaving more autocratically than his predecessors, the lines of what is acceptable have become blurred, and his views on freedoms are unclear.”
Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the autocrat who ruled Tunisia until he was overthrown by the 2011 revolution, censored the internet and forbade independent news organizations from functioning by limiting access to licenses. Criminal tribunals also examined cases involving journalists.
Saied’s attempts, on the other hand, evoke public hatred and distrust against his critics, she says. He does this by accusing journalists and opposition figures at large of working for foreign parties and of conspiring against the state.
“His attack on Mosaïque’s head sends a clear message that no one is safe,” she added. “He wants the media to submit to his will as he did to governmental institutions.”
A divided opposition is another factor hampering freedoms in Tunisia, she said.
“Some opposition groups will tell you that they have enough on their plate on the political front and do not wish to launch a new attack at this time,” she explained.
What happens next?
On Twitter, Bouabdallah is an outspoken figure who shares information and opinions on a daily basis – an activity she says will not cease. However, she notes that fear has become rampant among journalists and activists since no one is guaranteed protection.
Though the private media still criticize Saied, along with satirical shows that target him and his allies, State TV no longer invites opposition politicians, either out of pressure or self-censorship.
Several journalists have described the current work environment as hostile when reporting on politically challenging issues for Saied, such as food shortages or criticism of his policies.
Despite the president’s fear mechanisms that have led voices to self-censor, Tunisian political analyst Mohamed Dhia Hammami told Fanack that Tunisians remain committed to their freedoms.
“The right to free speech and a free press is undoubtedly under threat. Nevertheless, many people are maintaining these freedoms by criticizing the president openly on social media and calling him out on his actions,” Hammami said.
If people stopped scrutinizing the government, fear would become more prevalent, he added.
“To maintain freedom of expression, people must practice and preserve it as a social norm, such that criticizing the president is always perceived as normal.”
Regarding the timing of the chain of arrests, Hammami doubts Saied’s capacity for strategic planning and labels his behavior as “irrational” and “unpredictable.”
The main error in his actions, the analyst says, is that “attacking everyone on the opposition side creates a sense of common identity, thus incentivizing them to work together.”
According to Hammami, the president might be employing the “madman theory,” in which erratic behavior is produced to instill fear among all dissidents without clearly defining an enemy, making oppressive behavior unpredictable but nevertheless effective in evoking fear and promoting self-censorship.
As for the future of his crackdowns, the analyst expects the president to target the Tunisian General Labor Union UGTT, the most prominent of the Tunisian general trade unions, with more than a million members.
To counter the country’s descent into authoritarianism, Hammami, among many others, has called for the formation of a united opposition front, stating that “the top priority should be fighting Saied and safeguarding democracy. An authoritarian regime cannot guarantee freedoms or allow people to exercise them.”