Tunisia journalists accuse Saied-led state of intimidation amid mass arrests

Tunisia journalists accuse Saied-led state of intimidation amid mass arrests
3 min read
16 February, 2023
Demonstrators in the capital Tunis gathered to protest the lack of press freedom in the country, days after Noureddine Boutar, the director of radio station Mosaique FM was arrested.
The state of journalism and press freedom in Tunisia has rapidly decreased under Kais Saied [Getty]

Dozens of journalists and rights activists protested in the Tunisian capital on Thursday, accusing the state of "repression" and attempts to intimidate the media.

The protest, organised by the SNJT journalists' union, came three days after police arrested Noureddine Boutar, the director of popular private radio station Mosaique FM.

The station has often been critical of President Kais Saied, who in 2021 sacked the government, froze parliament and seized almost total power in moves rivals have called a coup.

The demonstrators gathered outside government headquarters in Tunis, some wearing red tape across their mouths.

Others shouted "No to repression of journalists" and "We demand an independent free press".

"The authorities want to bring both private and public media into line, and (Boutar's) arrest is an attempt to intimidate the whole sector," SNJT director Mahdi Jlassi said at the protest, which had been organised prior to Boutar's arrest.

Large numbers of police were deployed to prevent the demonstrators from gathering directly in front of the prime minister's office in the North African nation.

Boutar is one of 10 public figures arrested since Saturday - mainly critics of Saied, including members of the Islamist-inspired Enahdha party.

Since Saied's power grab, several high-profile critics of the Tunisian leader have faced trial in military courts.

But the latest wave of detentions sparked fears the president is escalating against his opponents in the crisis-hit birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

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'Defend their freedom'

Boutar's lawyers said he had appeared before a judge whose questioning focused on Mosaique FM's editorial line and criteria for choosing commentators.

Journalists' union chief Jlassi said authorities were "irked by the content of Mosaique FM's programmes, but this repression will not affect the will of journalists to defend their freedom".

The powerful UGTT trade union federation said Saied's government was trying to "snuff out every independent or opposition voice" by targeting the media.

It called on unions to "mobilise and prepare to defend the rights of Tunisians".

But Saied hit back at what he called "lies", telling Prime Minister Najla Bouden that the administration was acting with "full respect for the law".

"Has a single newspaper been shut down? Has a single programme been banned? Has a single journalist been prosecuted for anything relating to journalism?" he asked in a video posted on the presidency's Facebook page on Thursday.

Saied also hit back at criticism by unnamed foreign powers.

"We're not occupied or a protectorate, we're a sovereign state, and we know very well what we're doing," he said.

The United States said Wednesday it was "deeply concerned" by the spate of arrests.

"We respect the aspirations of the Tunisian people for an independent and transparent judiciary that is able to protect fundamental freedoms for all," said State Department spokesman Ned Price.