Concerns over Press Freedom as Journalists Harassed, Detained

Police block the path of demonstrators trying to reach Parliament on July 25, 2021. Police violently dispersed protesters subsequently. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

There have been numerous assaults and harassment of journalists by security forces, politicians and officials in recent years–with June alone seeing 18 assaults, and May seeing 13, according to the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). However, in the days since mass protests began on July 25 and President Kais Saied subsequently announced exceptional measures concentrating powers under him, there has been a spike in such harassment.

According to Khawla Chabbeh, a member of the SNJT’s Assaults on Journalists Observatory, they received more than 20 confirmed assaults out of more than 30 alerts they received from July 25 up until the time this article went to publication, and they are still receiving more such reports daily. In contrast, they had only confirmed 5 reports of assaults on journalists from July 1 to July 25.

On the night of July 25, President Kais Saied announced on national television that he was invoking article 80 of the constitution to take emergency measures including dismissing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and his government, suspending Parliament, lifting immunity from prosecution for Members of Parliament, and taking on the powers of state prosecutor.

“The union calls on President Kais Saied to urgently and immediately intervene to guarantee freedom of journalistic work and to prevent all illegal actions,” read a statement released by the SNJT. “The union expresses its fear of vengeful acts against media institutions by supporters and opponents of the recent decisions of President Kais Saied.”

Al Jazeera Offices Stormed

At 10 a.m. on July 26, between 25 and 30 security forces in both civilian and official clothes stormed the Al Jazeera offices in Tunis through its backdoor entrance, demanding the seven employees there leave and shutdown their premises, according to Lotfi Hajji, the Al Jazeera Tunis Bureau Chief speaking to Meshkal/Nawaat. The details of his account were confirmed by the SNJT. The security forces had no official warrant or subpoena for their actions, according to them.

In a statement, the SNJT denounced the closure of Al Jazeera offices, and the union immediately opened up its own headquarters as offices for the Al Jazeera Arabic journalists, where they have been working since.

“They demanded that we leave and forced us to give the keys without giving any reason,” Hajji of Al Jazeera told Meshkal/Nawaat at the SNJT’s offices in Tunis. “They said that…they were following orders…we were not provided with any reasons, whether we committed a professional error or anything.”

Hajji said that in the 10 years since Al Jazeera has been operating in Tunisia, they had not experienced such harassment.

One former Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent shared on his Facebook what has since become a widely shared rumor that the reason the offices were shut was that they were going to have a live broadcast from Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s house where he would announce his rejection of President Saied’s decision to sack him.

However, Hajji denied this.

“This is all lies, and there are no grounds to it. And on top of that it is a ridiculous account…because if Mechichi wanted to shoot a video he wouldn’t have needed Al Jazeera to do that for him. He could have just called his communication team or even just went live on Facebook,” Hajji said.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi released a statement on July 26 saying he accepted President Saied’s decision, although he has not made any televised appearances since the events.

Journalists Assaulted Before and After Saied’s Decisions

Even before President Saied’s announcement, several journalists who had gone to cover the protests outside of Parliament in the Bardo neighborhood of Tunis were assaulted by police.

“I told him that I was a journalist, but he [a police officer] still kicked me in the leg… they saw me holding the camera and I was sitting next to them the whole morning,” said Hamza Kristou, a photojournalist with the Tunisian State news agency TAP.

Kristou shared a photo taken by a colleague of the exact moment a policeman kicked him. Meshkal previously took a video of one moment when police charged demonstrators and the press who were covering the event.

Kristou also told Meshkal/Nawaat that he was prevented from entering the surrounding area of parliament, despite having official credentials.

Francesca Ebel, a Tunis-based independent British journalist, told Meshkal/Nawaat that she was harassed by police on three different occasions on July 25, all while she was trying to document police who were violently arresting protesters that day.

“One guy drove his motorbike into my leg very hard and I screamed at him that I am press and I am doing my job,” Ebel said, adding that she had been filming using her phone as police chased protesters. “I felt that the police got way more aggressive with protesters and journalists.”

Ebel said she screamed on several occasions that she was a member of the press, but that police kept trying to stop her from filming, grabbing her wrist and pushing her camera away.

The following morning, after President Saied’s decision to suspend Parliament the night before,  there were minor scuffles between Ennandha supporters and Saied supporters in front of Parliament.

Eya Mkaddem, a Tunisian freelance journalist, told Meshkal/Nawaat that when clashes started, the police attempted to prevent journalists from covering it, pushing them with their elbows.

“At one point, one of them [police officers] grabbed me and screamed at me that I must belong to ‘Qatar’s people’ pointing out how I was wearing the headscarf…He then pushed me away and told me to get out,” Mkaddem said.

Foreign Journalists Face Harassment

Much of the harassment in recent days has been towards foreign press outlets or Tunisian press accused of working for foreign outlets.

On July 26, four journalists from Tunisian media outlets Tunisie Numérique and Tunis scoop had their phones confiscated, while live streaming from the Ennahdha sit-in in front of parliament according to the SNJT’s Khawla Chabbeh.

The journalists were later taken to the Bardo police division, where they were questioned on the basis of claims that they were live broadcasting for Al Jazeera.

“We were accused of allegedly live streaming for Al Jazeera. Then they had us sign a declaration that said we were not live streaming for Al Jazeera,” Marwa Khmissi, Tunisie Numérique reporter told Meshkal/Nawaat.

On the same day, Qatari news outlet Al-Araby TV were notified by police in Bardo that they were no longer allowed to report live from there and police demanded they leave the area without a court order to justify it, according to the SNJT.

President Saied Invites New York Times Journalist to Carthage Palace

Cairo-based New York Times journalist Vivian Yee, who filed her first story about Tunisia from Cairo on July 26, was in Tunis July 28 with a team of two others reporting in Tunis when they were detained by police for questioning at the police station in the Hay Ettadhamon neighborhood.

According to Yee, writing in the New York Times, she and her team did not have accreditation because of “there no longer being any prime minister’s office to issue papers.” One journalist working for foreign media who has been based in Tunis for years told Meshkal/Nawaat off the record that this particular police station has a record of harassing foreign journalists, regardless of their accreditation status.

News of Yee’s detention quickly leaked and went viral on social media, with critics who call Saied’s recent steps a “coup” pointing to a dangerous crackdown on press freedoms. Yee attempted to get ahead of the story by Tweeting that they had only been detained and: “We’re continuing to report in Tunis. Thanks for the good wishes.”

President Kais Saied’s team then invited Yee, fixer Massinissa Benlakehel and one other member of the team to the Presidential palace in Carthage.

“Welcome to a country of rights and freedoms, and in a country of a constitution. I wanted to meet with you today to disavow and refute all rumors circulating on some media outlets,” President Kais Saied told them in a video shared on the Presidency’s Facebook page. “This is a message to all Tunisians and the world that Tunisia, despite the crisis it’s living through, is working in a framework that guarantees rights and freedoms…freedom of expression is guaranteed.”

The President, a former constitutional law professor, went on to quote from the U.S. constitution, which he said he had taught for more than three decades. Saied also pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s exceptional measures to protect democracy to justify the exceptional measures he has taken and which he insisted are constitutional.

For her part, Yee wrote afterwards that they were not allowed to interview the President, that it was a “lecture” by the President, and that the video of their meeting was edited to exclude them trying to ask him questions.

“It did not mention our detention or show us trying to ask questions; we were only props,” Yee wrote of the incident.

National TV CEO Fired

On July 27, SNJT’s Vice President Amira Mohamed and LTDH Vice President Bassem Trifi were initially prevented from entering the building of the State’s National TV to appear on a debate program. Trifi wrote in a social media post that security at the front door had received orders from Wataniya’s CEO Mohamed Lassaad Dahech to bar their entry. The Presidency intervened on air during their debate to deny having any hand in their blocking, according to a Facebook post by Mohamed. Later on the same day, president Kais Saied announced the dismissal of Dahech and the appointment of Awatef Dali to run the institution temporarily, setting off criticisms among some that he was consolidating his power over the national broadcaster.

One journalist familiar with the incident told Meshkal/Nawaat off the record that there was a list at the main entrance in the early morning with names of individuals not allowed to enter. But Meshkal/Nawaat was unable to verify who was responsible for the list barring the entry of the two debate program guests.

Meshkal/Nawaat saw at least three military vehicles in front of National TV on Saturday, July 31.

A Blog Insult to President Gets State Employee Arrested

On July 28, Hamza Ben Mohamed was arrested in the late hours of the night by security officials, allegedly for an offensive blog post targeting President Kais Saied, according to a post made by his lawyer on Facebook. A video blog Ben Mohamed posted on July 26 shows part of his uniform in the State’s Civil Protection force and he calls the President a “traitor” while stating in the video: “I am speaking in my name and in the name of the Civil Protection of the Republic of Tunisia.”

In recent years, several bloggers have faced prosecution under the penal code and the telecommunications, which human rights groups have pointed to as repressive and in need of reform.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.