New York, June 21, 2023 – Tunisian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release journalist Zied el-Heni, the Committee to Protect journalists said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, June 20, plainclothes security officers arrested el-Heni, a prominent columnist and political commentator for the daily online radio show Émission Impossible on the independent radio station IFM, according to news reports and a local journalist familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ.
A judge ordered that el-Heni be held in custody ahead of his trial on a charge of insulting President Kais Saied. Authorities brought el-Heni to the Fifth Central Division for Combating Information and Communication Technology Crimes, and as of Wednesday evening he was held pending trial at the Bouchoucha detention center in Tunis, the local journalist told CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.
If convicted of insulting the president, el-Heni could face up to five years in prison.
“The arrest of journalist Zied el-Heni on criminal insult charges is another clear example of President Kais Saied’s intolerance of the free press in Tunisia,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “Tunisian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release el-Heni and ensure that members of the press can discuss newsworthy topics without fear of spending years behind bars.”
Authorities did not allow el-Heni’s lawyer to attend his questioning in detention, and they denied him medication for a heart condition and high blood pressure, according to the journalist who spoke to CPJ.
The judge ordered el-Heni’s arrest in response to a broadcast on Émission Impossible in which el-Heni made mocking statements about Article 67 of the Algerian penal code, which imposes criminal penalties for committing an “evil act” against the president, according to the BBC.
Last month, Tunisian authorities increased the prison sentence for journalist Khalifa Guesmi from one to five years, on charges of disclosing national security information.
CPJ emailed the Tunisian Ministry of Interior for comment on el-Heni’s case but did not receive any response.