In Tunisia, a new fight for press freedom

Mohamed Yassine Jelassi remembers his days in prison under Tunisia’s pre-revolution dictatorship, but especially his heady days later – as a journalist covering the 2011 revolt that ousted him.

“It was a dream to live it,” said Jelassi, president of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, or SNJT, apologizing for choking. “I really hoped that Tunisia would become a developed and democratic country that guarantees the rights and freedoms of citizens.”

Tunisia’s free and spirited press is among the biggest victories of the historic uprising that sparked the wider Arab Spring, even if it failed to create jobs and economic growth. Budding social media both covered and helped spread the protests.

Today, journalists like Jelassi could be on the front lines of a chilling rollback in freedoms, according to media outlets and rights groups, under another strong government.

The North African country, hailed for creating the freest press in the Arab world, fell more than 20 places in Reporters Without Borders’ latest press freedom rankings, after Tunisian President Kais Saied took wide powers in July 2021. He now sits in a disappointing 94th place. out of 180 – where 1 has the optimal conditions – overall.

Many fear that under the president’s new constitution, which cements his powers and erases many democratic checks and balances, hard-won freedoms will erode even further – fears dismissed by Saied and his government.

“The treatment of the Tunisian media is deteriorating day by day,” says Khaled Drareni, RSF’s North Africa representative, who describes current press freedom here as “the least worst” in the region.

“Unfortunately, with President Saied, we have many examples from the past,” adds Drareni, referring to pre-revolutionary autocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Drareni himself is no stranger to restrictions. As a journalist in neighboring Algeria, he was jailed in 2020 for covering that country’s anti-government protests.

The pressures on the media are increasing here too.

The Tunisian national press union is fighting for the independence of the media. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Normalized bullying

“Intimidation has become normalized,” RSF wrote in its 2022 Tunisia Press Freedom Index, describing a “new line crossed” this year, when a foreign correspondent was beaten and others attacked while that they were covering a demonstration.

Other journalists have been arrested, harassed and sentenced to prison terms, watchdog groups report. Two television stations critical of the president were pulled last year over apparent licensing issues.

The Tunisian press union SNJT also accuses the government of launching defamation campaigns against certain reporters. And a day after Saied froze parliament and sacked its prime minister in July, police stormed Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera and closed its Tunis office.

“It is increasingly difficult to be a journalist in Tunisia,” says Jelassi, director of SNJT, which also covers politics for Tunisian online publication Nawaat.

State television no longer invites opposition politicians to voice their opinions, either through pressure or self-censorship, Jelassi’s union has found after monitoring its coverage since Saied’s expanded powers.

“These are freedoms that journalists won,” said Salsabil Chellali, a former journalist who now heads Human Rights Watch’s office in Tunis. “Today they are fighting to keep them.”

Tunisian authorities reject accusations that these freedoms are under threat.

In all forms of media, “there are criticisms,” says Tunisian Ambassador to the United States Hanene Tajouri Bessassi, describing freedom of expression and a vibrant civil society as key gains of the revolution that remain respected and intact. “People express them freely without any restrictions. The opposition does too.”

President Saied offers similar arguments.

“Why do you think that at 67 I would start a career as a dictator?” the former constitutional lawyer asked the New York Times last year after taking office.

It was a rare one-on-one press encounter with Saied, who seems to have little time for them. “This is not a press interview,” the president told the Times reporter.

“He only speaks via videos on Facebook,” says SNJT’s Jelassi.

Yet despite growing obstacles to reporting, says Jelassi, “the difficulties are post-revolution difficulties, in a more or less democratic system – until now.”

A newsstand in Tunis with President Saïed in the image of a major magazine.  (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

A newsstand in Tunis with President Saïed in the image of a major magazine. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“Golden pen” for dictators

Tunisia before the revolution was much worse, they and others say. Under its first post-independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, television news began with long coverage of the president’s swims in the Mediterranean.

Successor Ben Ali, who ousted Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, promised greater media freedom. But they turned out to be illusory.

Instead, Ben Ali’s government censored the internet and effectively banned independent media by controlling access to printing presses and operating licenses. It allowed some journalists to be tried by a criminal court.

The Tunisian government-sanctioned press syndicate has been ridiculed by foreign watchdogs for presenting Ben Ali with the so-called “Golden Feather” award for media independence.

Mohamed Yacine Jelassi experienced difficult press conditions before and after the Tunisian revolution.  (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Mohamed Yacine Jelassi experienced difficult press conditions before and after the Tunisian revolution. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“In Ben Ali’s time, there was a total media blackout,” recalls Jelassi, imprisoned in 2006 as a student activist and reporter for a left-wing opposition party and its newspaper.

“People harassed us all the time, civil and military courts judged us for the slightest thing,” he adds. “You couldn’t say anything, you couldn’t protest in the street.”

But as the country’s economy began to decline, Ben Ali’s grip on power also diminished. In December 2010, the self-immolation of an impoverished vegetable vendor in central Tunisia struck a chord with other struggling citizens.

In a country where few have dared to speak to journalists, let alone criticize the government, the first street protests have erupted.

While the government-sanctioned press initially prevented the protests from spreading, opposition journalists and social media activists covered and fed them, via platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

“We were divided between those who joined the protests and those who reported on the events,” Jelassi said of his own post. “I had a lot of friends who got arrested. I was supposed to be next.”

January 14, 2011 changed this trajectory. With streets packed with people chanting for his ouster, Ben Ali fled the country. The Tunisian population had won.

“The next day,” Jelassi recalls, “my friends were released.”

Cameraman Yassine Bahri remembers fighting for the right to report freely before and after the Tunisian revolution.  (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Cameraman Yassine Bahri remembers fighting for the right to report freely before and after the Tunisian revolution. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

good for a while

State television cameraman Yassine Bahri and his colleagues have been banned from covering the protests or Ben Ali’s secret flight to Saudi Arabia.

Restrictions dropped after the presidential plane took off. Bahri, who was at the airport when the president took off, covered the arrest of Ben Ali’s son-in-law there a few minutes later.

“We had exclusive footage, shown on national television,” he says.

A new committee of journalists overhauled the broadcaster’s coverage, shedding prominent pro-government news anchors.

“Everything was fine,” Bahri said. For a certain time.

Saied is not the only politician accused of attacking media independence.

Previous governments and parties, including the once powerful Islamist-leaning Ennahdha, have been accused of trying to manipulate media coverage, in part through the appointment of senior leaders controlling state television and newspapers.

The government of Saied’s secular predecessor, Béji Caïd Essebsi, has been criticized for restricting access to information and for dragging several journalists before military tribunals.

“We had a lot of problems with previous governments,” says Jelassi. “But there have always been channels of communication.

It ended “after July 25” last year, he says, when Saied sacked his prime minister and eventually dissolved parliament.

Yousra Chikhaoui says she was slapped by police covering a July protest in Tunis.  (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Yousra Chikhaoui says she was slapped by police covering a July protest in Tunis. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

For Yousra Chikhaoui, who works for the online publication Hakaek, freedom of the press is now a “relative” concept.

“We can do specific subjects, like reports and interviews,” she says, “but when it comes to investigations, journalists have a lot of problems.”

Chikhaoui says she was slapped by police last month covering a protest against Saied’s constitution, which ended in tear gas and scuffles.

“They hit me with their hands,” she said of her attackers, who she said also included members of the security forces in civilian clothes. “I lost consciousness.”

She will be back to cover upcoming events.

“It’s too late to muzzle the press again,” said Chikhaoui. “We will continue to speak out. We will not give up.”

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