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Tunisian journalists behind bars reflect growing repression of media freedom

Tunisians have been concerned about the return of oppression and restriction on media freedoms following renewed military trials of civilians, arrests and attacks on journalists.
Journalists hold up signs reading in Arabic (R to L) "freedom of the press is a red line."

TUNIS — The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists confirmed in a statement Oct. 6 its absolute rejection of military trials of civilians, journalists and activists based on their positions, views and publications. This comes against the background of a heightened arrest campaign of journalists and activists, most of whom oppose President Kais Saied who ousted the government and suspended parliament with help from the army on July 25.

The syndicate warned against the return to freedom restrictions, and considered these trials a setback for freedom of expression and a blow to democracy and the right to disagree.

On Oct. 5, the Tunisian judiciary sentenced four people to prison, including a female journalist, on charges of spying and harming state security through social media pages, raising the anger of rights organizations that fear the return of tyranny.

The case of the four people has become known in the media as the “Instalingo case,” named after a Tunisian digital content production company accused of launching those social media pages.

Suhail Mudaimegh, a lawyer and member of the defense team for the suspects in the Instalingo case, told Mosaique private radio that the public prosecution issued prison sentences against four people out of seven others who had previously been held in custody.

On Oct. 3, Tunisian authorities arrested parliament member Aloui Abdellatif and Ameur Ayed, host of the Hassad 24 television program on Zaytouna TV, on charges of conspiring against state security after they criticized and insulted Saied during an episode of the show.

Ramzi Afdhal, member of the executive office of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, told Al-Monitor that referring journalists and civilians to military courts is an unconstitutional procedure and a negative indication for the future of public freedoms in the country.

Afdhal stressed the journalist syndicate’s total rejection of prosecuting journalists and activists based on their opinions and ideas.

“The syndicate believes that any professional errors or publishing issues are the prerogatives of the syndicate’s bodies as per Decree 115/2011 on the Freedom of Press, Printing and Publishing. The syndicate also stresses its adherence to Decree-Law 115 and Decree-Law 116 on audiovisual media as the sole framework for organizing the profession,” he said.

Fawziya al-Ghiloufi, another member of the syndicates’ executive office, said in an Oct. 5 Facebook post that arresting journalists constitutes a serious threat to journalism in Tunisia. She added that the syndicate will not remain silent on threats against journalists.

Tunisian authorities had also closed Al-Jazeera offices in Tunis on July 26, a day after Saied announced a series of exceptional decisions, starting with the suspension of parliament and lifting immunity from parliament members, the sacking of the prime minister, as well as his decision to take hold of the executive power with the help of a premier of his choice.

Tunisian blogger Salime Jebali was also summoned on May 31 for investigation at the Military Public Prosecution on charges of defaming the president.

On June 17, the military judiciary sentenced Jebali to prison for three months with immediate execution. He was released on July 2.

Most political parties and organizations denounced Saied’s exceptional measures, which are viewed as a coup against the Tunisian Constitution.

The Lawyers for the Protection of Rights and Freedoms association said in a statement Oct. 3 that ongoing trials of civilians before military courts deepen fears of escalated crackdowns on everyone that opposes the president.

In a statement issued Oct. 3, the left-wing Tunisian Workers’ Party denounced what it described as the “treason campaigns” against those opposing the president’s decisions, blaming him for any repercussions of these measures that undermine freedom of expression.

Also on Oct. 3, the Tunisia Will Movement denounced the security authorities’ arrest of Abdellatif and Ayed for expressing their views, considering this step a serious violation of the law.

Hassib Abidi, vice president of the Tunisian Association for Rights and Freedoms, told Al-Monitor that media freedom is the only gain that was achieved in the 2011 revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, and any attempts to restrict the freedom must be confronted.

He said referring journalists to military trials is a dangerous indication of restriction of the freedom of opinion. “The head of state must abide by his pledges to preserve public freedoms in the country,” Abidi said.

Since announcing the exceptional measures on July 25, Saied had pledged several times to preserve the rights and freedoms stipulated in the 2014 Constitution. But human rights organizations criticized him for his restrictions on journalists and for conducting military trials for civilians.

According to a National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists report released on May 3, which marked the World Press Freedom Day, 206 attacks were recorded against journalists from May 1, 2020, to April 3, 2021, in Tunisia, which is the highest rate of attacks in the past three years.

Also according to the report, the Interior Ministry and the security apparatuses carried out 43 attacks on journalists, and the Cabinet ranked second in terms of political appointments in public and private media outlets and in violent practices against journalists.