When a CPJ researcher sat down with Lotfi Hajji, Tunisia bureau chief of Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera at a coffee shop in Tunis in July, we noticed that a man sitting directly behind us was recording our conversation on his phone. When we stood up to take a selfie with him in the background, the man moved out of the frame and rushed to the bathroom to avoid being captured on camera.
Hajji began to laugh, saying the scene reminded him of a 2005 CPJ mission to Tunisia, when “plainclothes security officers were following our every move in their car.” He added: “It’s like we’re going back in time!”
CPJ could not meet with Hajji at the Al-Jazeera office because it has remained closed since police raided the bureau on July 26, 2021, confiscating all broadcasting equipment and forcing all staff to leave the building. The raid came less than 24 hours after Tunisia President Kais Saied fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament, granting himself sole executive power. A new constitution, approved by a largely boycotted voter referendum nearly a year later, on July 25, 2022, codified Saied’s nearly unchecked power, upending the checks and balances between the president, prime minister, and parliament provided by the 2014 constitution.
Saied’s decision to shut down Al-Jazeera’s office on the heels of his power grab “symbolizes the state of press freedom under his regime,” Malek Khadhraoui, co-founder and publication director of local independent news website Inkyfada, told CPJ. Over the ensuing 14 months, at least four journalists have been arrested, and two were sentenced to several months in prison by military courts. Many others have been attacked by security forces while covering protests.
“We found that 2022 was one of the worst years in terms of press freedom violations since we began monitoring them six years ago,” Khawla Chabbeh, coordinator of the documentation and monitoring unit at the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), a local trade union, told CPJ in a meeting. On July 25, 2022, the day of the constitutional referendum, “we monitored the most violations against journalists that has occurred in a single day,” said Chabbeh.
The Tunisian Ministry of Interior did not respond to CPJ’s email request for comment about the state of press freedom in Tunisia, or about whether plainclothes security officers had followed CPJ and its local partners in 2005 or this year.
Dismantling independent constitutional commissions
Following the constitutional referendum on July 25, Tunisia approved the new constitution, replacing what was considered one of the most progressive in the Arab world. The new document is missing many of the articles that had guaranteed the protection of rights and freedoms. It eliminates several constitutional commissions created under the 2014 constitution, such as the Human Rights Commission, which investigated human rights violations, and the Independent High Commission for Audiovisual Communication, the country’s media regulatory body.
Saied’s crackdown on Tunisia’s independent constitutional bodies began even before the new constitution was formally adopted. On August 21, 2021, police shut down the headquarters of the National Anti-Corruption Authority without providing a reason. On February 6, 2022, Saied dissolved the High Judicial Council, which was mandated to ensure the independence of the judicial system and to act as a check on presidential powers, in a move United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet described as a “clear violation” of international human rights law. These changes have implications for press freedom, local journalists told CPJ.
“The 2014 constitution protected the freedom of the press, publication, and expression. However, the new constitution does not mention anything on the independence of the judicial system, which is one of the few things that could guarantee fair trials when violations against journalists or the press occur,” Mohamed Yassine Jelassi, president of the SNJT, told CPJ in a meeting. “And now, with the lack of independent constitutional bodies, we are going to start dealing again with a Ministry of Communications that takes its orders straight from authorities.”
Jelassi said Tunisia’s executive authority is now concentrated almost exclusively in the hands of the president, adding that Saied now has the power to propose and pass decrees and to appoint the members of the judiciary and the constitutional court.
“So even if the president passes a decree related to press freedom, and it gets approved by the parliament, in the past, we had the right to appeal the constitutionality of these decrees,” said Jelassi. “But now, since the president alone has the upper hand in hiring judges, this right is no longer guaranteed. Whatever freedom the new constitution provides with one hand, the law can take it away with the other.”
Jelassi told CPJ that the new constitution further diminishes the protection of journalists and the freedom of publication by using vague language that could lead to the conviction of journalists on charges unrelated to journalism. Under the 2014 constitution, authorities were prohibited from interfering with any journalistic content, since it would violate the freedom of publication. By contrast, the new constitution protects the freedom of publication only if it does not harm “national security,” “public morals,” or “public health,” which are all defined by the law.
Over the past year, authorities arrested journalists Amer Ayad, a talk show host for privately owned channel Zaytouna TV, Khalifa Guesmi, a correspondent at local independent radio station and news website Mosaique FM, Ghassen Ben Khelifa, editor-in-chief of local independent newspaper Inhiyez, and Salah Attia, founder and editor-in-chief of local independent news website Al-Ray al-Jadid, on anti-state charges. Military courts sentenced Attia to three months in prison and handed down a four-month sentence to Ayad.
“This is the first time in years that we see civilians being tried in military courts, let alone journalists,” Chabbeh said. “We consider this a clear indication to where press freedom is headed in the next few years, and it is not a positive one.”
Losing access to information
The 2014 constitution guaranteed journalists’ rights to information through the creation of the National Authority for Access of Information, an independent body responsible for providing information regarding official decisions to the media. Even though that right remains in place with the new constitution, and the National Authority for Access of Information is nominally still operating, Khadhraoui and other journalists said that in practice, government bodies are not providing journalists with the information they need to do their jobs. For example, while the National Authority for Access of Information is supposed to have an office in every ministry, its office in the Interior Ministry has shut down, several journalists told CPJ.
“Today, decrees get written, issued, and applied overnight and they [authorities] inform citizens and journalists of these new laws at the same time. This is problematic because Tunisian citizens are used to receiving transparent journalistic coverage of these topics. That was possible through the office of Access of Information in the Ministry of Interior, which is now closed,” Khadhraoui said, adding that journalists requesting information from the ministry now face bureaucratic obstacles and must sign many forms that often don’t get approved.
Obtaining press accreditations also has become increasingly difficult. Chabbeh showed CPJ its unpublished research on hundreds of local and foreign journalists who had applied for press accreditations to cover the July 25 referendum. While authorities provided them with a written document allowing them to cover the vote, most security officers at the polls did not accept the documents and prevented many journalists from reporting or taking pictures, she said.
Hajji told CPJ that he and his colleagues at Al-Jazeera had been able to renew their press accreditations without problem every year for the past 11 years, but that authorities told them in January that they couldn’t be renewed because of the office closure.
“Since this reason didn’t make sense, the syndicate got involved and helped us get our press accreditations,” said Hajji, adding that they still had to wait six months before they were able to renew special accreditations for camera crews, which used to be renewed automatically with the press credentials.
Hajji also said that while Al-Jazeera has all its paperwork, licenses, and taxes in order, the office remains closed. As of early September, police were still heavily present in front of the bureau’s building, he said.
“It is a mystery to me that they are giving us press accreditations and allowing us to work, yet they’re not allowing us into our office, and they’re not even telling us the reason for shutting it down in the first place,” Hajji said. “It’s been a year now, and we still have no idea why this happened.”
Targeting foreign funding
Khadhraoui, Hajji, and Jelassi told CPJ that local journalists and rights advocates working for independent organizations that receive foreign funding fear that their organizations could be shut down. In a speech on February 24, 2022, Saied said he planned to prohibit foreign funding to local civil society organizations in order to stop foreign intervention in the country. Saied had not issued such a decree by mid-September, but the journalists have told CPJ that they would not be surprised if it happened at any time.
“Most private [and non-profit] news organizations are partially funded by foreign groups or governments,” said Khadhraoui. “Without these funds, it will be impossible to pay staff salaries, and therefore there won’t be any independent press sector in Tunisia.”