Tunisian journalists fear for press freedom after President Kais Saied's 'coup'

Tunisian journalists fear for press freedom after President Kais Saied's 'coup'
Amid what has been described as a 'coup' by Tunisia's President Kais Saied, media trade unions have been slow to set out their views on the country's latest political crisis.
3 min read
27 July, 2021
Many Tunisian journalists fear restrictions on media freedom after the president's 'coup' [AFP/Getty]

Tunisian journalists fear a return to draconian limits on press freedom, as in the pre-2011 revolution era, after emergency political measures were taken on Sunday by President Kais Saied, which have been widely described as a "coup".

Saied suspended parliament and got rid of the nation's premier, Hichem Mechichi, citing Article 80 of the constitution, although his understanding of the measure has been disputed by many.

Tunisian police raided Al Jazeera's office in the capital of Tunis on Monday, with 20 or more heavily armed officers telling all journalists to leave and taking the keys, the international media outlet said.

Security "requested the journalists to close all phones and computers and unplug all devices", according to Al Jazeera bureau chief Lufti Hajji.

The office was shut over claims the broadcaster is "not being objective in reporting what is happening in Tunisia", press insiders told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister service, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

Meanwhile, reporters covering events in the streets came under assault, the news site said on Monday.

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Amid a protest outside the Tunisian parliament on Sunday, journalists and photographers were pelted with stones, although it was not clear who perpetrated this violence.

One photographer, Yassin Al-Qayidi, who works for the Anadolu Agency, was hurt after being struck on the head with a stone.

In the face of the possible threats facing the Tunisian media, many outlets appear unwilling to rock the boat.

Many news sites and radio stations preferred to stick to reporting the news and featuring constitutional experts clarifying President Saied's interpretation of Article 80.

In doing this, they avoided attaching a label to what has happened in Tunisia.

Local television stations, for their part, mostly avoided covering what happened at all, aside from a few who likewise avoided making any characterisations about Saied's actions.

This is except for Zitouna TV and Nessma TV, who criticised the president, saying he would be the cause of any disquiet the nation might experience after his move, which was described as violating the constitution.

Even so, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed had not heard of any media organisations being giving orders on how to cover the unfolding events in Tunisia, although some contacts did worry restrictions on the media could be forthcoming.

They noted that President Saied is seen as antagonistic toward local outlets and has not spoken to them since coming to power, despite engaging with broader Arab world and international organisations.

They also raised Saied's multiple requests that prosecutorial authorities act against critics of his and of high-level officials, causing some journalists to raise the importance of the unions protecting them.

However, the unions have been slow to set out their views. General Media Union Vice-President, Mohammed Al-Hadi Al-Tarchouni, told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed it would follow the lead of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), to which it belongs.

The UGTT on Monday tentatively backed the president, according to the Financial Times, though urged commitments to get back on the road of constitutionality.

Against this backdrop, AFP's Tunis correspondent, Kawthar Al-Arabi, took to Facebook to criticise some radio stations in the country for compliance by moving toward the president's position starting from Monday morning.

The latest events are not the first time President Kais Saied's actions have come under fire.

In April, he was criticised for planning a "soft coup" two days after he said he has lawful control of domestic security forces.