'Either follow instructions or risk jail': Journalists in Tunisia under surveillance

The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) called on Tuesday (April 11th) for a boycott of the work of parliament after private and foreign media were prevented from covering the plenary session for the second consecutive time

'Either follow instructions or risk jail': Journalists in Tunisia under surveillance

The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) called on Tuesday (April 11th) for a boycott of the work of parliament after private and foreign media were prevented from covering the plenary session for the second consecutive time. Under pressure, the president of the Assembly of People's Representatives (ARP) announced that all the media could be accredited from this Wednesday. A small victory in an increasingly burdensome context for journalists in Tunisia.

Present in front of the institution's headquarters, Yassine Jelassi, the president of the SNJT, denounced "a desire to return to old practices", with "a closed and opaque Parliament". "The public media are turning into government media," said Khaoula Boukrim, editorial director of the Kashf Media news site. We cannot even count on national television to broadcast the plenary session correctly, it sometimes cuts the sound. »

After the coup by President Kaïs Saïed on July 25, 2021, and the dismissal three days later of the CEO of national television, the new management was quick to exclude any dissident voice from its sets, with programming devoid of of political debates and a newspaper which communicates in priority on the activities of the executive. In November 2022, employees protested against attempts by management to interfere in the editorial line after several journalists were summoned before the disciplinary board. The SNJT then denounced "the intention to transform national television into a propaganda organ in the pay of the regime in place".

"It's propaganda"

Since then, the employees have been officially silenced. Two journalists contacted by Le Monde declined to comment for fear of reprisals. “There is a circular that prevents us from making statements without permission. I have enough problems as it is, ”laments one of them, assuring that none of her colleagues would agree to speak. Dated January, the text prohibits employees from expressing themselves "in the media on subjects related to their work or with the establishment of Tunisian television without prior authorization" and warns that any statement contrary to "the best interests of the state" may be subject to disciplinary action.

“Several colleagues were put in the closet and prevented from working. Their proposals are systematically refused, assures Amira Mohamed, vice-president of the SNJT. We can no longer speak of a public media, it is propaganda and anyone who refuses to work for the power in place is dismissed. »

Within the official news agency, Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), journalists are expectant after the recent appointment of Najeh Missaoui as its head. Editorial manager of the television news of the first national television channel during the revolution, he later admitted to having been pressured and received instructions under the Ben Ali regime. "Nothing prevents a person who has worked with power in the past from doing the same thing again after July 25," said Amira Mohamed. In April 2021, TAP employees prevented the appointment of another CEO accused of collaborating with the former regime.

Journalist within the agency, Behija Ben Mabrouk indicates that cases of censorship have already been noted before this appointment. A standoff had been engaged over an article on sub-Saharan migrants following Kaïs Saïed's controversial statements about them. Eventually, the article was published again, but only for the agency's clients. The journalist assures that she and her colleagues do not intend to submit to possible pressure: “As long as we do our job properly, we are not afraid. But the question of possible legal proceedings also arises.

A liberticidal text

This week, two journalists, Mohamed Boughalleb and Monia Arfaoui, were summoned by the Tunis criminal brigade following a complaint by the Minister of Religious Affairs. They are notably accused of "disseminating false information" on the basis of Decree-Law 54-2022. "This is the third time that a journalist has been prosecuted on the basis of this decree", deplored the SNJT and several civil society organizations in a press release published on Monday, announcing the launch of a campaign against this text deemed draconian. .

Promulgated by Kaïs Saïed in September 2022, officially to fight against the dissemination of "false information and false rumours", it punishes with five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars (about 15,000 euros) anyone who "deliberately uses the communication networks and information systems to produce, promote, publish or send false information or false rumours". The penalty incurred is up to ten years in prison in the event of defamation against a State official. "This text gives immunity to civil servants against criticism that may be directed at them," the signatory organizations are indignant.

In addition to the journalists prosecuted for spreading false information, Noureddine Boutar, director of Mosaïque FM, the most listened to radio station in Tunisia, has been imprisoned since February 13 for "conspiracy against state security" and "money laundering". . He is accused of having used radio money to direct the editorial line of the media against power. The court file, to which Le Monde had access, does not provide any evidence to support these accusations. For Amira Mohamed, the situation is critical: “We are fighting for our survival. Either follow instructions or risk jail time. »