President Kais Saied's stringent regulations on Tunisia since July 2021 have led to a decline in press liberty. He has steadily reinforced his grasp on authority, relegating the right to free expression to a time prior to the 2011 revolution, when President Ben Ali was overthrown and forced out of the country.
Kais Saied unlawfully suspended Parliament in July 2021, and, despite widespread popular boycotts, established a new constitution a year later, brazenly flouting the principle of separation of powers. He has gone on to enact notorious laws that suppress journalists, the public and private press, and media organizations, disregarding all appeals to repeal them or to begin talks with civil society groups in support of free speech to improve the deteriorating state of freedom of expression in Tunisia.
Over the past couple of years, press freedom in Tunisia has been on a steady decline, and the beginning of 2023 has been a nightmare made worse by Kais Saied's oppressive government. The WJWC's monitoring unit reported that from January to February of this year, 61 journalists, including 25 women, faced violations. This represents a significant increase when compared to the same period in 2022, during which 132 breaches were recorded, with 37 Tunisian female journalists being targeted.
The report provides insight into how Tunisian authorities regularly target journalists, the press, and media organizations, undermining press freedom in the country.
legalization of transgressions
In autocratic nations, governments often use laws as a tactic to restrict press freedom and target journalists. The Kais Saied government was clever in its use of regulations to target journalists in 2022. Tunisian journalists are frequently brought before military courts for allegations that should be handled by civil courts under Decree Nos. 115 and 116, which have regulated the field since 2011. For instance, Amer Ayad was sentenced to two months in prison by the Military Court of Appeal for reciting a poem on Al-Zaytouna TV that was deemed to have insulted the Tunisian president and distorted opinions about the Tunisian army.
On November 29, 2022, Khalifa Al-Qasimi, correspondent of "Mosaique FM" in Kairouan, was sentenced to one year in prison by the Specialized Chamber for Terrorist Cases. This was based on his publication of an authentic news report on the dismantling of a terrorist cell in Kairouan. When the security authorities demanded that Al-Qasimi reveal his sources of information, he insisted on his legal right to withhold it. The news report published by Al-Qasimi was a factual account of the terrorist cell's dismantling in Kairouan.
In September 2022, Tunisia's President Kais Saied issued Decree No. 54, which aimed to combat crimes related to information and communication systems. Unfortunately, this decree has had a chilling effect on the freedom of expression in the country. Journalists and lawyers have been targeted with case files opened against them. The decree has included unprecedented restrictions that are being used to intimidate journalists and the public from expressing their opinions, particularly towards political officials. It is alarming to see how easily a government can silence its people, and it raises serious concerns about the future of democracy and human rights in Tunisia.
Tunisia's Decree 54 has sparked concerns among human rights groups for its potential to curb freedom of speech and enable press abuse. The decree's broad terms lack clarity and a clear definition of "false news, rumor, or documents," leaving room for authorities to interpret it at will. This ambiguity can serve as a pretext for the government to crack down on the media and punish individuals for expressing their opinions. Moreover, the penalties stipulated under Decree 54 are severe, including imprisonment of up to six years and fines of up to $20,000, making it a potentially powerful tool to silence dissent.
Additionally, the decree grants the authorities sweeping powers to monitor citizens' internet use and collect their personal communications data from service providers. The vagueness of the grounds on which these measures can be taken, such as "revealing the truth" or "investigating a suspected crime," can be exploited to target political dissidents, journalists, and activists. Furthermore, Chapter 35 allows the sharing of this information with foreign governments, raising concerns about the potential violation of citizens' privacy and the government's accountability. The decree's overbroad language and lack of safeguards pose further threat to Tunisians and their fundamental rights.
Article 24 of the decree is a disturbing infringement on freedom of speech and expression. It criminalizes the mere act of producing or sharing false information, regardless of intent or impact. The broad language of the decree allows for potential abuse by those in power, who may use it to silence dissenting voices and suppress information. The doubled penalties for public officials or similar persons reek of crackdown and further erode trust in the justice system. This decree sends a chilling message to the population, promoting fear and self-censorship. It is a dangerous step towards a society where only sanctioned information is allowed, stifling critical thinking and hindering progress.
The reach of the new law extends beyond Tunisian borders, posing a threat to both domestic and foreign journalists. Article 34 allows for prosecution of offenders even if the violation occurred outside Tunisia, as long as it targets Tunisian parties or interests. This provision casts a wide net, leaving journalists vulnerable to legal action for even the slightest criticism of foreign parties or interests. The law's language is sweeping, allowing for the prosecution of foreigners or stateless individuals residing in Tunisia, as well as those found on Tunisian soil. This blurring of boundaries is a cause for concern, as it risks curtailing the freedom of the press and stifling critical voices. The potential consequences of this law extend far beyond Tunisia's borders and have serious implications for freedoms in general
The new law falls short of protecting data privacy and journalistic confidentiality, leaving individuals vulnerable to arbitrary action. The lack of clear guidelines on data storage and privacy is a cause for concern, as it creates a grey area where authorities may access personal information without proper justification. The repeated referral of journalists and newspaper directors to the judiciary only serves to stifle free speech and restrict access to information. The arrest of journalist Noureddine Boutar is a prime example of this abuse of power. His arrest and raid on his house without any explanation or justification highlights the arbitrary nature of the law's implementation. This law poses a serious threat to the freedom of the press and the basic rights of individuals, enabling the authorities to act with impunity and without accountability. It is a deeply concerning development for Tunisia's democratic future.
Even the president of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate is subject to indictment due to the law's extreme repression. Mohamed Yassine Jelassi is facing absurd charges of "assaulting a public authority and encouragement to disobedience" just for covering a protest demonstration. The actions of the Tunisian government, which are reminiscent of the worst moments of the "Ben Ali" regime, amount to nothing less than an effort to intimidate journalists and restrict freedom of the press. The core principles of democracy and human rights are under attack by this egregious abuse of power. It is a sobering warning that those who want to impose their agenda by fear and force run the risk of undermining Tunisia's progress towards a free and open society.
The right access to information
Tunisian journalists are facing daily struggles in their work, as they are denied the right to access information despite the existence of a basic law related to access to information (22/2016), which was previously praised as the best legislation in the Middle East and North Africa. This situation has only worsened since the introduction of Government Circular No. 19/2021, which instructs government officials to coordinate with communication departments at the Presidency of the Government before any media appearance, and to avoid participating in media channels that violate the law or decisions of the Independent Higher Authority for Audiovisual Communication. This circular has led to various state structures and local authorities implementing a special blackout on information, causing frustration and difficulty for Tunisian journalists. The continued restriction on access to information is a clear violation of press freedom and an attack on the democratic values of transparency and accountability.
The Tunisian people have fought hard for their gains, yet this circular threatns to undermine their sacrifices and goes against the very principles enshrined in the constitution and international treaties signed by the state. This has resulted in journalists being forced into unemployment, unable to access the information they need due to the draconian laws and never-ending trials they face.
Meanwhile, press institutions are being denied their fundamental right to cover events, with many media outlets voicing their frustration at being prevented from filming in public places. The security services have re-introduced a licensing system that had been abolished after the 2011 revolution, and despite possessing valid identity cards, journalists are being prohibited from practicing their profession under the rule of Kais Saied. To make matters worse, local officials are turning a blind eye to press reports, even on non-political topics, and are refusing to offer any comment or explanation.
Crackdowns on the media
Despite the fact that over 12 years have passed since the fall of the "Ben Ali regime," Tunisian authorities still refuse to acknowledge the concept of independent public media. Instead, they attempt to appoint their loyal supporters to crucial positions in radio, television, and the national news agency, enabling them to maintain editorial control over these outlets.
Complaints from public media have been on the rise for the past two years, but they have dramatically increased in the current year (2023). Male and female journalists at the Tunis Afrique Press Agency have reported systematic attacks and harassment as a result of their journalistic articles and investigations. Additionally, the administration has been interfering with the work of journalists without any objective professional assessment, particularly if they have published articles or collaborated with colleagues that are deemed "embarrassing" to the authorities.
During preparations for presenting the news bulletin on the 10th of January 2023, Tunisian TV journalist Samia Hussein received news that she was disqualified from presenting it. This was due to statements she made to independent private radio stations, where she discussed being criticized for her reporting on the milk crisis in Tunisia. The following day, Tunisian Television issued a ban preventing employees from disclosing information or documents related to their job or public television, or making statements to private institutions that contradict professional secrecy or the state's supreme interest. This decision, which included vague language such as "the supreme interest of the state," is believed to be part of a broader effort to silence Tunisian journalists and impede their work.
Political employment of press institutions
The Tunisian authorities are persistently attempting to exert control over press institutions and manipulate their editorial stance. The most egregious tactics involve hindering journalists' and their families' livelihoods through arbitrary terminations and delayed paychecks. In March 2023, the "Snap Lapras Press" organization experienced an exceptionally high degree of tension when its employees went without wages and benefits for over a week. This scenario has become a recurrent issue in recent months, despite assurances from the authorities and the Ministry of Finance that the payments would be prompt. According to the employees, the authorities seek to align the institution's editorial position with their agenda.
The Ministry of the Interior recently made a statement on Facebook, attributed to Interior Minister Tawfiq Sharaf al-Din, in which he referred to the media, press, and trade unions as "mercenaries and traitors." This type of rhetoric echoes the language used during the time of Ben Ali and is a form of systematic intimidation. As a minister with access to violent tools, this behavior confirms that President Kais Saied is following in the footsteps of a police state. The Minister of Interior, whose job is to ensure the security of Tunisians, does not have the right to assess the performance of journalists and the media in the country. Rather, the minister should immediately put an end to the widespread repression in the country and ensure that those who commit abuses are held accountable.
In conclusion, Tunisia's press freedom has been on a steady decline under President Kais Saied's oppressive government. His stringent regulations have led to a decline in free expression, with laws enacted to suppress journalists, the press, and media organizations. The recent Decree 54, which aimed to combat crimes related to information and communication systems, has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The vague language of the decree and lack of safeguards pose a further threat to Tunisians and their fundamental rights, with potential for abuse by those in power. This poses serious concerns about the future of democracy and human rights in Tunisia. The international community must pay attention to the situation in Tunisia and take action to protect the freedom of the press and the right to free expression.
Here are some recommendations to:
1- The Tunisian President:
• Provide real guarantees for the work of journalists and freedom of expression by abolishing the notorious laws that threaten journalistic work in Tunisia and restore the Ben Ali era.
• Develop practical plans with the participation of civil society organizations concerned with the press and freedom of expression to protect journalists from the spread of repression and the systematic targeting of public and private institutions.
• End the efforts towards pushing "freedom of the press" in the country into a police state atmosphere, and remove the press and press institutions from its political differences.
• Develop plans with the participation of press and media institutions that take into account the needs of the sector and ensure their sustainability.
2- The Tunisian judiciary:
• -Adhere to justice that protects the right of Tunisian citizens to access true and accurate information and do not be drawn into the authority’s vision of targeting freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of the press in the country.
• -Reverse government decisions that restrict the work of journalists, and prevent the executive authority from controlling and controlling the judicial authority.
4- The public media:
• Adhere to the independence of public press institutions and confirm that they belong to the people and not to the authority.
• -Cancel all arbitrary decisions against journalists and workers in institutions, and cancel memos that limit the freedom of journalists working in the institution and their right to express their opinions.
5- Government officials and politicians:
• Respect journalistic work and facilitate access to information for workers in the press sector.
• Stop the populist rhetoric that incites and encourages hatred and violence against the media and journalists.
Women Journalists Without Chains
March 16, 2023