Authorities Arrest Head of Tunisia’s Biggest News Radio Station

Sign held by demonstrator in front of the journalists' union in downtown Tunis reads: "Press freedom is a red line." Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj, March 25, 2022

Authorities on Monday evening arrested Noureddine Boutar, the general director of Mosaique FM, the news radio station with the biggest audience in Tunisia. According to Boutar’s lawyer, authorities interrogated him for five hours, including questions about Mosaique’s editorial line. No charges have been brought against Boutar yet, his lawyer said.

“Noureddine Boutar was questioned about the editorial line of the radio, the choice of columnists, its management, its finances,” Boutar’s lawyer Dalila ben Mbarek Msaddek, told IFM radio in an interview on Tuesday. 

“The journalists’ union considers that this is an attempt by authorities to control the media, to impose a climate of fear,” Mohamed Yassine Jelassi, the president of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) told Meshkal.

The SNJT in a statement released Tuesday afternoon also claimed that Boutar’s arrest was linked to Mosaique FM’s journalism and that the move was part of the government’s strategy to reign in free press.

“It was confirmed beyond any doubt that the arrest [of Boutar] comes within the framework of harassment that the authorities have been practicing on media in general and on Radio Mosaique FM with the aim of domesticating it, bringing it into the house of obedience, and directing its editorial line,” the SNJT statement read.

Msaddek claimed that about twenty police officers arrived at Boutar’s home to arrest him and search for evidence. For the SNJT, the police arrived in force to search Boutar’s house in order “to search for evidence to convict him in a desperate attempt that failed and revealed the original goal of the arrest process, which is to intimidate the workers in the media sector after starving them and invalidating their institutions.”

“An arrest in this way indicates that there is no respect for the rights of journalists, there is no guarantee of justice, no right to defense. And with regard to Noureddine Boutar, he was arrested without any accusation against him,” Jelassi told Meshkal.

There are reports that Boutar is being held at the headquarters of the national anti-terrorism brigade in Gorjani, although Meshkal could not confirm this.

The arrest builds on a growing wave of repression on freedom of the press which has increased since President Kais Saied disbanded parliament and assumed full executive powers on July 25, 2021.

President Saied not a fan of Mosaique FM

Mosaique FM has regularly featured columnists critical of President Kais Saied and his government, particularly in recent months. In December, at the Francophone countries summit in Djerba, President Saied responded to a question from Mosaique FM reporter Chaker Besbes about the summit by changing the subject to Mosaique’s criticism of the government.

“At Mosaique they say whatever they want to say every day, yet they call this dictatorship.You work at this broadcaster and no one ever interfered. What dictatorship are you talking about?” Saied said to the reporter at the time, in a video recording of the exchange that was widely shared.

The reporter Besbes replied “Who mentioned dictatorship?”, to which Saied replied: “Journalists there and those who work in many other news media institutions. About which dictatorship are you talking? Because unfortunately, they are talking in the name of known political factions.” Besbes responded: “Mosaique FM has a charter that asserts freedom of expression,” and Saied responded “Freedom of expression, but freedom of expression requires freedom of thought.”

The arrest drew immediate condemnation from both domestic and international advocates of free expression. The SNJT’s statement called for Boutar’s immediate release and expressed “condemnation of the President of the Republic’s exploitation of his power in order to subjugate, distort, and incite the media.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement on Tuesday calling on Tunisian authorities to “​​immediately and unconditionally release journalist Noureddine Boutar and allow journalists and media workers to work freely. Reporters without Borders (RSF) also issued a statement on Twitter saying that Boutar’s arrest “without an arrest warrant or official reason, his interrogation which focused on his editorial choices, is as unacceptable as it is sadly revealing of the crackdown on the press in #Tunisia

The SNJT is calling for a “day of anger” protest for the press in front of the Prime Minister’s office in the Kasbah of downtown Tunis on Thursday morning, February 16.

Other Arrests

The arrest of Boutar comes amid a series of high profile arrests of politicians critical of the government as well as the politically influential businessman Kamel Ltaief. These include at least nine people according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), including Khayam Turki formerly of the Ettakatol party, Abdelhamid Jelassi who was formerly a leader in the Ennahdha Party before leaving the party, Ennahdha’s Noureddine Bhiri, and Lazhar Akremi, a founder of the Nidaa Tounes party. These arrests, reportedly under vague terrorism charges, include unconfirmed reports of vague charges of conspiring against national security.

The Ennahdha Party President Rached Ghannouchi issued a statement Tuesday condemning the arrests of Bhiri and Boutar, calling them “abductions and the systematic abuse of critics of Kais Saied’s coup and every free media voice.”

The arrests provoked the UN’s OHCHR to issue a statement on Tuesday expressing “concern over the deepening crackdown in Tunisia targeting perceived political opponents of President Kais Saied as well as civil society.”

State news agency TAP reported that newly appointed Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar commented on the arrests, saying that “the recent arrests were due to serious cases related to national security and had nothing to do with political rights or media activities,” and that foreign statements about the arrests are “hasty and inaccurate and undermine judiciary.”

Boutar’s lawyer Msaddek insisted in interviews that her client’s case was different to those of the others arrested, claiming that her client was being held at a different location.

Mosaique FM is the most listened to radio station according to a study conducted by the Sigma Conseil polling group. 

A November 2021 study by Sigma Conseil comparing audience size of different radio stations in Tunisia.


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