Press freedom in Tunisia: not a fantastic country

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Written By Maya Cantina

Tunisian TV presenter Sonia Dahmani was arrested after making critical statements about the government. Your colleagues see that press freedom is in danger.

Crowd raises their hands, gesticulating

Sonia Dahmani’s colleagues protest on May 16. in Tunis for freedom of expression Photo: Mohamed Messara/epa

TUNIS taz | After the successful uprising of Tunisian civil society During the Arab Spring, the country became a role model in the region and made all over the continent. Protest movements such as “Manich Msemah” (we do not forgive) regularly drew tens of thousands into the streets against the continued power of regime-era business networks. The 2014 constitution was a compromise between all political parties. Sit-ins such as the Karmour movement also demanded social justice in places far from the capital. Above all, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 2015 seemed to be proof that democratic change in Tunisia is crisis-proof. But Paragraph 54, introduced by President Kais Saied and confirmed by parliament, has now cost the early critics their freedom.

Since a live broadcast by French news channel France 24 on May 11 from the House of Lawyers in Tunis, previously passive civil society has mobilized for street protests.

Well-known lawyer and TV commentator Sonia Dahmani invited journalists and fellow activists for a protest there. The 35-year-old was previously questioned for hours by police officers about a television discussion on Carthago TV. With two simple words, she dismantled a conspiracy theory spread by President Kais Saied and state media.

A panelist invited along with Dahmani explained the increasing number of migrants as a campaign by dark forces against the Arab and Islamic culture of North Africa. Tunisian civil society would help because it receives money from abroad, said another participant in the conversation. Then the otherwise level-headed woman with the signature short haircut burst out of her collar.

The young people want to leave

“What fantastic country are you talking about? Half of our young people want to emigrate themselves.” “Hayla Lebled,” the Arabic words for great country, quickly became an ironic embodiment of the passivity of the political elite in the face of the country’s worsening economic and social crisis. The judiciary saw in its comments the spread of rumors and false reports, which is prohibited under Article 54, and filed charges against Dahmani.

The reporter from the news channel France 24 was about to ask her to appear on camera at the law firm when masked police officers burst into the building. With a silent smile, Dahmani allowed himself to be led away and has been in custody ever since.

The officers also briefly took the France 24 cameraman with them. It was only when they demanded the memory card from his camera that they realized the entire event had been shown live on France 24’s evening news programme. The visibly shaken French reporter and her team were able to go home. But there is now a fear among Tunisian journalists of being prosecuted for even mild criticism on social media. Last week, two renowned media representatives, Mourad Zeghidi and Bohren Bsais, were sentenced to one year in prison. Presumably for Facebook posts from years ago. To the surprise of many observers, the otherwise overburdened judiciary converted the initial 48-hour pre-trial detention into a draconian sentence in record time.

Lawyers demonstrate

“Even the Ben Ali regime did not dare to break into our building and clearly violate the law,” a lawyer said, commenting on the police operation. He and his colleagues want to prevent new such summary proceedings with a national strike. The wave of arrests started last year. In late December, authorities arrested Al-Jazeera journalist Samir Sassi and independent radio commentator Zied el-Heni. Although no charges have been filed against Sassi, el-Heni is being prosecuted for “personally insulting others” during a radio broadcast. El-Heni had criticized Trade Minister Kalthoum Ben Rejeb.

Noureddine Boutar, the director of the popular radio station Mosaique FM, had previously been arrested on charges including money laundering. On the independent radio station one can often hear critical words towards President Saied, but also against his political opponents, the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda party or the opposition leader Abir Moussi, who is close to the former regime.

The leadership of Ennahda, which was popular after the revolution, is behind bars because it received money from abroad. Two more cases were opened against the captured Abir Moussi. The details of the procedures are often barely known to the public. The majority of the population ignores Said’s restructuring of democracy towards a basic democratic model with greater presidential power.

Only about 11 percent of eligible voters took part in the parliamentary elections in January. But law professor and political newcomer Saied’s tough stance against politicians, civil society and the media is especially popular in Tunisia’s neglected south-west. In places like Sidi Bousid, from where the Arab Spring spread throughout the Arab world, there is great disappointment with the revolution. Many journalists and lawyers in Tunis are considered part of an elite that fights for freedom of expression, but remains silent about social injustice in the country.

On Friday, several hundred demonstrators for freedom of expression took to the streets in central Tunis. Kais Saied responded with the promise that this would remain guaranteed. However, so far there has only been cautious criticism from Europe. Because Kais Saied consistently enforces a migration agreement signed with the European Commission. Hundreds of migrants and refugees are arrested and taken to the country’s borders. Journalists are only allowed to report on the spot with special permits, which are extremely rare.

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