An image of journalists Borhen Bssais (left) and Mourad Zghidi (right).
A Tunis court convicted radio journalists Borhen Bssais (left) and Mourad Zghidi of defamation and spreading false news and sentenced them to one year in prison each. (Screenshots: Carthage Plus/YouTube; IFM/YouTube)

Tunis court sentences 2 journalists to 1 year in prison, prevents hearing coverage

New York, May 23, 2024 — The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Tunisian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release radio journalists Borhen Bssais and Mourad Zghidi after a Tunis court convicted them on May 22 of defamation and spreading false news, and sentenced them to one year in prison.

“CPJ is deeply concerned that a Tunisian court sentenced journalists Borhen Bssais and Mourad Zghidi to a year of imprisonment for social media posts and political commentary they made on the radio. The move sets a new record for the Tunisian government’s intolerance of a free press,” said CPJ’s Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “Tunisian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Bssais and Zghidi, drop all charges against them, and allow journalists to cover the news without fear of imprisonment.”

The court banned journalists from entering the courtroom and covering the Wednesday hearing, citing a lack of press accreditations, according to a report by local independent news website Tumedia, and a local journalist following the case, who spoke with CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. The journalist told CPJ that this hearing was public and, therefore, banning press coverage should have been illegal.

Bssais and Zghidi, both radio journalists for the local independent radio station IFM, were charged under Decree 54, according to those reports. Decree 54 was introduced in September 2022 as part of a new constitution, which replaced what was considered one of the most progressive in the Arab world and omitted many of the prior constitution’s protections of rights and freedoms.

Police arrested Bssais and Zghidi on May 11 in connection to Bssais’ television and radio commentary critical of President Kais Saied and Zghidi’s social media posts in solidarity with imprisoned journalist Mohamed Boughaleb.

In May 2024, the Tunisian government began a wave of arrests that included numerous political activists, civil society figures, and at least six media members. The local journalist told CPJ that as of Thursday, Sonia Dahmani, a lawyer and political affairs commentator for IFM and television channel Carthage Plus arrested May 11, and Houssem Hajlaoui, co-founder and publisher of local independent news website Inkyfada arrested May 14, remain behind bars.

CPJ’s email to the Tunisian Ministry of Interior did not receive a response.