Repression of Journalists Intensifies with Arrests in Tunisia

Journalists demonstrate outside of the SNJT office in Tunis on March 25, 2022. Sign reads: "Press Freedom, a Red Line." Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

In recent days, several journalists have been detained by authorities. Journalists say this amounts to increasing restrictions on press freedom and an assault on the profession. Mosaique FM reporter Khalifa Guesmi was arrested and Nawaat reporters Tarek Laabidi and Seif Koussani were briefly detained by authorities for questioning. Guesmi, arrested on March 18 on suspicion of terrorism for not divulging his source to authorities, was eventually released on March 25, but civil society groups pointed to his case as a “dangerous precedent.”

National Guard officials from the “National Terrorism Crimes Investigation Unit” detained Guesmi on after he wrote an article the previous day on March 17th about security forces dismantling an alleged terrorist group in Kairouan, according to a statement by more than 20 civil society groups. The same statement notes that State prosecutors at the judiciary’s special anti-terrorism “pole” authorized his detention as a suspected criminal under the counterterrorism law, i.e. law 26 of 2015.

According to Guesmi, he was initially questioned for nine hours as they attempted to get him to reveal his source.

“I was indeed harassed and pressured and it reached the point where I questioned my patriotism. This was during the first day of investigation in the presence of my lawyer.

I was threatened after the lawyer left,” Guesmi told Meshkal, adding that he also faced harassment by the police. “I was cornered with questions by four or more security forces yelling and almost lecturing me.”

Hours before Guesmi’s release on March 25, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) held a demonstration outside its headquarters to denounce violence against journalists and support their colleague.

“We are journalists not terrorists,” chanted about a few dozen journalists outside of the SNJT office in downtown Tunis during their protest. Other chants included: “Journalism is not a Crime;” “A Journalist is not an Informant,” and “The Media is Independent and the Struggle Continues.”

SNJT President Mohamed Yassine Jelassi speaks at a demonstration in front of the SNJT in Tunis on March 25, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“We will not surrender today to the President or to his government,” Amira Mohamed, SNJT vice president, told Meshkal during the demonstration. “We are here today to send a message to the current authorities, who sent us a message by arresting our colleague Khalifa Guesmi and investigating our colleagues Amal Manai and Hussein Derbali as suspects.”

Manai is a journalist with Mosaique FM and Derbali is the editor-in-chief there, both of whom were also summoned for questioning in relation to Guesmi’s reporting.

Mohamed of the SNJT said that while Guesmi did not reveal his source, authorities eventually discovered the source anyways using Guesmi’s phone and that “the source admitted that he was the one who provided the information.” Despite finding out the source, however, authorities continued to detain Guesmi in order “to intimidate and scare journalists,” Mohamed said.

“We…support [Guesmi] because, by protecting his source, he protected us all,” Mohamed said.

Journalists demonstrate outside of the SNJT office in Tunis on March 25, 2022. Main sign reads: “A journalist is not an informant.” Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“What happened can be considered as an attack on the press and an attempt by the executive and judicial authorities to make media outlets kneel,” said Guesmi. “These violations could be considered to be targeting all journalists and not only my humble self.”

Guesmi credits his colleagues, SNJT, Mosaique FM, lawyers and civil society activists for his release, saying that if they had not mobilized to help, he “would have remained behind bars for years–not for committing a crime but for [writing] an authentic, ‘true’ article.” 

His release on March 25 shortly after the SNJT protest came after a hearing before an investigative judge at the anti-terrorism “pole” where nine pro-bono lawyers defended him, SNJT leaders said.

After Guesmi’s arrest, Mosaique FM took down Guesmi’s offending article, although it is still available online on other websites. Asked about this, Guesmi told Meshkal this was a “matter of internal affairs that concerns the radio’s editorial team.”

In 2011 after the revolution, decrees 115 and 116 were issued as key press reforms designed to ensure greater press freedom. Article 11 of Decree 115 asserts that a journalist “may not be subject to any pressure, any authority, and it cannot be required of any journalist or any person involved in the making of the journalistic material to reveal their sources of information…” unless a judge requires it in a case where not divulging a source would “present a serious risk to the physical integrity of others.” The counterterrorism law number 26 of 2015 also cites Decree 115 in article 37, which exempts journalists from prosecution for not divulging information about terrorism cases to authorities.

Other arrests, attacks on journalists

Since President Kais Saied’s July 25 decisions and subsequent expansion of executive powers, there have been increasing restrictions on press freedoms as well as violence against journalists. Meshkal reported on this trend in early August, but SNJT notes that things have only gotten worse since then.

Citing the reports from SNJT’s special Assaults on Journalists Observatory, journalist and former SNJT communications officer Ali Bouchoucha said that there “is a great diversity [in the kinds of] attacks on freedom of the press that we have not seen before: through the control of the national television and the intervention of official State forces like the army in protecting it. We started seeing these violations immediately after July 25.”

“The number of attacks against journalists and media institutions, especially foreign ones, has also increased according to the latest statistics,” Bouchoucha added.

Several journalists were beaten by police officers or had their cameras confiscated during demonstrations in Tunis that police violently dispersed on January 14, 2022, the 11th anniversary of the revolution.

Police disperse protesters in downtown Tunis on January 14, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Taarek Laabidi, a photojournalist for Nawaat, was detained by police on March 23 along with his colleague Seif Koussani after they tried to photograph people gathering for the “Learn to Swim” campaign. That campaign calls for the prosecution of police they hold responsible for the death of 19-year-old football fan Omar Laabidi back in 2018.

According to Tarek Laabidi (no relation to Omar Laabidi), police stopped him and Koussani and asked to see their official journalist assignment document [mission d’ordre] signed by their editors.

“We informed them the purpose of our presence, yet they questioned our credibility and told us that the mission d’ordre is not valid and thus illegal as it lacked the signature of the Ministry of Interior. I insisted that our mission d’ordre was legal, and after arguing they decided to arrest us. We were taken to the police station and stayed there for three long hours,” Laabidi told Meshkal. “They insisted on knowing our source. They wanted to know how we knew about the campaign spot. They called Nawaat’s editor and asked him to reveal the source and hung up right after the editor refused to answer him. We luckily had the [Learn to Swim] campaign’s lawyer with us.”

Laabidi and Koussani have been summoned to appear before the Ben Arous courthouse on April 14, but it is unclear whether they are suspected of any crimes or facing potential prosecution. Laabidi said their summons might have to do with police believing that Koussani and Laabidi “were inciting public opinion against them.”

Nawaat’s editorial board subsequently released a statement condemning the detention, calling it “violations of the rights of the two journalists and…obstacles to the exercise of the profession.”

“We call on journalists and all professional and trade union structures to stand firmly against police overreach,” the statement reads, adding that “Nawaat reserves the right to take legal and administrative action against agents who have flagrantly broken the law.”

“We are used to police harassing us. They want to prevent photography in all public places unless the Ministry of Interior approves of it. Because the power of a camera frightens them. They will not intimidate us, and we will not submit to their threats,” Laabidi said.

Journalists hold President Saied Responsible

Amira Mohamed believes these attacks intensified after July 25th because President Saied “simply hates the media criticizing his political project. He wants to be constantly applauded.”

“He rejects the critical role of the media. We should deliver news the way he wants and hide what won’t appeal to ‘his excellency.’ Unfortunately, the President does not depend on the local press. His communication policy is completely digital [via social media], which confirms his desire to abolish all mediation bodies such as civil society, political parties and the media,” said Mohamed. “He will not abolish us. We will resist all forms of oppression against the media. We were not and will never be a tool to feed his propaganda.”

Journalists demonstrate outside of the SNJT office in Tunis on March 25, 2022. Main sign reads: “Press Freedom, a Red Line.” Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Bouchoucha pointed to the crackdown on dissent on the state broadcaster Wataniya, where the SNJT previously revealed that all political parties had been banned from appearing on news programs since July 25.

“After the 25th [of July], there was no room on national television for a dissenting and critical opinion of the President or his choices. We no longer see any voice criticizing authority, and it became a basis for promoting the decisions of the President,“ said Bouchoucha.

Asked about the SNJT’s cooperation with the Interior Ministry following police assaults on journalists on January 14, 2022, Mohamed said that the intention from the union had been “to avoid attacks on journalists,” but she put the blame largely on judges and President Kais Saied rather than the police.

“We hold the judges accountable for the arrests [of journalists], because even if the security forces violate the law, judges are supposed to protect freedoms and do justice to the citizens. The journalist is a citizen too, after all,” she said. “Today, media freedom is at stake. The President now has all powers. He promised that nothing will come in the way of freedoms, but we see practically the total opposite. Today we see terrible restrictions on media work.”