The last days of Tunisia's free press

6 min read
24 May, 2023

It is 12.30pm on the 15th of May and Haythem El Mekki checks his mic, puts on his headphones, and goes on air for his regular five-minute radio slot on Mosaïque FM, something he’s been doing for years.

Every midday he analyses Tunisian politics, mixing sharp analysis and humour. On that particular Monday, Haythem talked about the police and security forces, and how low recruitment standards can lead to corruption.

The following day he was summoned for a hearing in front of the Gorjani Criminal Unit after a police union filed a complaint. He's accused of defamation and prejudice towards the security forces.

"I was just suggesting that we need to reform how policemen are recruited, as it has been documented that some security officers enter the police just to use their position to gain money, power or an informal immunity" El Mekki told The New Arab.

"Kais Saied's increasingly autocratic rule has led to a state of fear in the media sector, especially after Decree 54 was issued in September 2022"

His commentary was focused on the Djerba terrorist attack on 10 May targeting Jewish pilgrims on the Tunisian island. Two worshipers and three security officers were killed in the gun attack, which was carried out by a national guardsman.

"Worst thing is, the idea behind the column was to protect the police. I was thinking what can we do to prevent any future attack?” El Mekki said. It is safe to say that Tunisian authorities did not see it that way.

Under Kais Saied's rule, journalists and media have been regularly targeted by the authorities. Mosaïque FM's director, Noureddine Boutar, was arrested in February alongside more than 30 political opponents of Kais Saied on money laundering charges and accusations of plotting against the state.

Last week, Khalifa Guesmi, a Mosaïque FM correspondent, was sentenced to five years in jail for refusing to reveal his sources in a publication praising security forces for dismantling a terrorist group. It was the harshest judicial decision against a journalist in Tunisian history.

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"It's not possible to do journalism in Tunisia right now. People will say I'm too radical; I feel that people are too accepting. When you are afraid to criticise the government because you could get charged with anything, how can you do your job?" added El Mekki.

The situation has led him to consider quitting the show. "I'm fine as long as it only hurts me. If it starts affecting other people around me, I will definitely think about stopping my work. It would be a blessing in disguise, as it would send the clear message to Tunisians that it's not possible to do independent journalistic work anymore."

Is it still possible to do independent journalism in Tunisia? Amira Mohamed, vice president of the journalists’ unions, thinks it's becoming more and more difficult.

"It's still possible, but it comes with a cost: harassment, judicial hearings, and sometimes jail. That's why a lot of media outlets have deprogrammed their political shows; private TV channels such as Nessma or Elhiwar Ettounsi have stopped all forms of political discussions in their programs," Mohamed explains.

Tunisian Journalists' Union (SNJT) organised a demonstration on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2023 in Tunis, Tunisia. [Getty]

When it comes to the public sector, it's even more challenging to imagine independent journalistic content.

"The president now directly names the public media director, without consulting with anybody. Those who do not follow the government's agenda, they are stopped from working. I have seen the director of Tunisia African Press Agency withdraw paragraphs from articles," says Mohamed.

Before the 2011 revolution, Ben Ali's dictatorship kept a tight grip on media outlets. After the Arab Spring, the Tunisian press discovered new depths of political freedom. Just a few years back, puppet shows were aired on live TV mocking presidents and government figures.

But Kais Saied's increasingly autocratic rule has led to a state of fear in the media sector, especially after Decree 54 was issued in September 2022. While the bill's goal is "to punish offences relating to information," it focuses mainly on demanding heavy prison sentences for offences such as “rumours or fake news”.

"It's not possible to do journalism in Tunisia right now [...] When you are afraid to criticise the government because you could get charged with anything, how can you do your job?"

Decree 54 has been used dozens of times to sanction prominent Tunisian journalists that criticise the government, such as Nizar Bahloul, Mohamed Boughaleb or Mona Arfaoui. It's not uncommon in Tunisia to prosecute critics of the government, as the post-revolution order did not entirely repel Ben Ali-era laws criminalising free speech.

Between 2015 and 2020, bloggers and activists were prosecuted for criminal charges including defamation or harming the dignity of state representatives. So why did President Kais Saied feel the need to issue a new decree threatening freedom of speech while there was already a set of existing laws that could have been used by the government?

For Tunisian journalist Monia Ben Hamadi, it's more of a political manoeuvre. "The main difference is the sanctions. With Decree 54, you could face up to ten years in jail. When something does not fit Kais Saied's agenda, he issues a repressive law," explains the Tunisia correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde.

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She takes the example of the anti-speculation law of March 2022. The decree criminalises the deliberate spreading of “false or incorrect news or information” that would cause consumers to refrain from buying or would disrupt the supply of goods to markets and thereby cause prices to rise.

Amnesty International, a human rights NGO, labelled the decree as a threat to freedom of speech, saying that "blanket prohibitions on the dissemination of information, based on vague and ambiguous concepts such as spreading false or incorrect information, are incompatible with international human rights law". The law has led to the arrest of at least ten people since it was issued.

Such legislation has severely impacted the work of Tunisian journalists. "How can you do fieldwork in this context? If I say something about the bread or sugar crisis, and the government disapproves, I can end up in jail," explains journalist Nayma Chermiti to The New Arab.

Kais Saied -- Anadolu
Under Kais Saied's rule, journalists and media have been regularly targeted by the authorities. [Getty]

"Any form of analysis can lead you to prosecution. If you say that Tunisia is having a financial crisis, that it's difficult to find goods, you can be charged with defamation. The worst thing is that the people are supporting this attack on the press," the founder of online media Arabesque added.

Last Monday, the journalists’ union protested in front of the Gorjani criminal unit before Haythem El Mekki and Elyes Gharbi's hearing.

"How can you do your work, when at any moment, you could be banned from travelling, called in front of the criminal unit or simply arrested?" Haythem El Mekki says.

For the moment, he does not know if he will be charged and arrested. It is a grace period in which he can still do his work, until the day that no Tunisian journalist will be able to.

Amine Snoussi is a political analyst based in Tunis.

Follow him on Twitter: @amin_snoussi