Officers from the Tunisian National Guard’s Central Investigation Brigade interrogated Sami Ben Gharbia, the cofounder of the independent news website Nawaat, for six hours on May 3, 2017, demanding that he reveal the sources of an April 24 article about a draft economic and financial reconciliation law, Ben Gharbia told the Committee to Protect Journalists. The officers also demanded that he supply the names, phone numbers, and national identification card numbers of all the journalists who worked on the article, he said.
Ben Gharbia said that he refused, citing Article 11 of the country’s press law, which specifically enshrines journalists’ right to protect their sources’ identities. Officers then demanded the names of all Nawaat journalists who requested or saw leaked documents pertaining to the draft law. When Ben Gharbia again refused, investigators him that they wanted a full list of the website’s staff, phone numbers, and national ID card numbers. “They wanted a list of all workers, from the cleaning lady to the managers,” Ben Gharbia said, adding that the names of the publication’s staff are all on the website.
Ben Gharbia on May 9 answered a summons to appear before the Tunis First Court as a witness in a case against an employee from the presidential palace suspected involvement in the leak. During the hearing, Ben Gharbia discovered that authorities had logged all incoming and outgoing calls from his personal phone. The judge told Ben Gharbia that he was being summoned as a witness and was not being investigated, but that any decision to file charges would be made by the public prosecutor, Ben Gharbia told CPJ. He added that during the interrogation, officers suggested that Nawaat staff had somehow manipulated the leaked documents and so might be charged with spreading false news.
Ben Gharbia has been harassed by Tunisian authorities for years. Security forces summoned him for questioning three times in the past year alone, and that police had recently visited his house when he was not home. Police also beat and arrested the website’s cameraman in 2014, Ben Gharbia said.
A CPJ delegation met Tunisian officials, including the president and prime minister, in 2015 to discuss the country’s press freedom environment. The visit came as CPJ released a report describing pressures journalists face in the country, despite the improvements that followed former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s January 2011 ouster.