Tunis, Tunisia – The again room within the restaurant close to Mosaique FM Tunis’s workplaces is abandoned. In a nook, Tunisian political commentator Haythem El Mekki speaks as he eats. Between mouthfuls, he lists the litany of threats and abuse he has obtained because the nation’s 2011 revolution.
“I’ve been focused each day and on a large degree because the revolution,” he says. “I’ve been threatened bodily dozens of instances,” he provides, earlier than describing the 2 distinct assassination threats from hardline teams that required police intervention. He pauses, pondering: “They’ve additionally despatched ricin [a poison] to the radio station the place I used to be working.”
Nonetheless, regardless of his brushes with everybody from spiritual hardliners to the pre-revolutionary regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it’s the passage of Article 54 – punishing something on-line that the federal government decrees “faux information” and coming with the cultural about-face throughout a lot of Tunisia’s nationwide media within the final two years – that has left El Mekki and others like him remoted and nearer to arrest than ever.
Journalist Nizar Bahloul, the editor of the net title Enterprise Information, has already been charged underneath Article 54 for a column mentioning the absence of any achievement by the nation’s head of presidency (prime minister) in 13 months in workplace.
Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Hamada, a college scholar, was held underneath the phrases of the article for posting on social media a few protest in his neighbourhood. Legal professionals, former politicians and former members of the electoral fee have all been prosecuted underneath Article 54, labelled by Amnesty Worldwide as “draconian“.
“The principle downside is just not the article itself, it’s in its utility,” El Mekki explains. “While you see the editor of Enterprise Information prosecuted for one thing he revealed, you’re left pondering, what subsequent? The regulation itself is about tackling ‘faux information’ on the web, however the Enterprise Information piece wasn’t faux information, it was simply opinion. Others discuss abuses dedicated by a minister, and so they’re additionally prosecuted. It’s clear that this wasn’t written to fight faux information. It’s there to close the mouths of journalists who’re essential of the system. That’s all.”
Allied to authorized penalties for publishing supposed falsehoods on-line has been the cultural change that passed off throughout a lot of Tunisia’s mainstream media since President Kais Saied’s dramatic energy seize in July 2021.
In latest months, an specific supporter of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been appointed to go the nation’s information company, Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), with a corresponding shift in output. La Presse, the nation’s state newspaper, not too long ago led with the headline Merci Monsieur Presidente (“thanks sir president”), whereas the nationwide tv channel has been dismissed by the Nationwide Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) as a “trivial propaganda mouthpiece that excludes all opposition voices”.
Lauded, typically abroad, as one of many nice beneficial properties of the revolution, media freedom in Tunisia has typically been shaky. Insulting public officers or state establishments, reminiscent of the military, has lengthy been punishable by army courts.
Nevertheless, the president’s current authoritarian turn, together with the purging of his opponents and critics, in addition to his curbing of media freedoms, has hardly ever appeared extra ominous.
In early Could, Reporters With out Borders, additionally recognized underneath its French identify Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), revealed its newest world rating in media freedoms, displaying a dramatic fall for Tunisia, from 94th – already pretty low down – to 121st place out of the 180 nations surveyed.
“Tunisia has fallen on this rating for a number of causes,” mentioned Khaled Drareni, RSF’s North African consultant, outlining the nation’s political atmosphere, together with the purges of the president’s opponents and his distinct authoritarian flip.
Nevertheless, it was Article 54 that proved to be among the many most important. “Whereas the decree-law units out penalties,” Drareni mentioned, “it doesn’t present any definition of ‘faux information’ and ‘hearsay’.” On this manner, the federal government permits itself the pretext for utilizing the combat in opposition to faux information, to “legitimise assaults on press freedom and the suitable to tell and learn”, he mentioned.
Flashes of hope
The panorama is just not completely bleak. Impartial radio, together with shops reminiscent of Mosaique FM, the place El Mekki works, and titles like Nawaat and Inkyfada, nonetheless produce accountable journalism.
A protest, in response to the violence triggered by the president’s racist characterisation of the nation’s undocumented Black refugees and migrants, was organised for essentially the most half by journalists, outdoors the Tunis workplaces of the SNJT.
“We get abused, Folks insult us on-line. Largely you get used to it,” mentioned Mohamed Mehdi Jlassi, the president of the SNJT.
“Nevertheless, earlier than Article 54 there have been legal guidelines defending the rights of journalists to jot down what they’ve seen and what they know,” he mentioned by a translator.
“There was all the time bullying, I’m not saying it was nice, however there have been legal guidelines. Article 54 modified every thing. There at the moment are 17 journalists being prosecuted underneath the phrases of this regulation. It isn’t simply journalists. There are actors, politicians and activists, all of civil society faces authorized points.”
Management over Tunisia’s media has real-term penalties. Whereas President Saied’s populist programme and the purges of his already broadly resented opponents within the former parliament and their supporters play to an appreciative viewers, the absence of any essential examination can’t be ignored.
Within the face of Saied’s dismissal of the “diktats” compelled upon the nation in return for a much-needed bailout from the Worldwide Financial Fund, he has but to be pressed on an alternate. Equally, the plethora of costs arrayed in opposition to his opponents and critics, many for “plotting in opposition to the state”, have but to be publicly examined.
Claims by the International Ministry that it’s unattainable for Tunisia to be racist have but to be measured in opposition to the president’s phrases and, in February, earlier than the present spherical of arrests, the president scored overwhelmingly in polls carried out by the nation’s two main polling firms.
Again within the cafe, El Mekki is aware of his popularity presents a level of safety. However issues are altering. The arrest of Mosaique FM’s Director-Common Noureddine Boutar on money-laundering costs, plus the recent arrest of the chief of the self-styled “Muslim Democrats” social gathering Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, who was charged with plotting in opposition to state safety, all level to darkening skies.
“Everybody thought Ghannouchi was internationally protected one way or the other,” El Mekki mentioned. “However they arrested him anyway. If they’ll do this, then why not, why not me subsequent? I’m one phrase away from it.”