Hundreds rally in Tunis amid lawyer and journalist arrests

Protesters denounce recent wave of arrests of journalists, activists and government critics

Tunisians block a street during a demonstration in Tunis. AFP
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Hundreds of Tunisians participated in an anti-government protest in the capital Tunis on Friday following a series of arrests of lawyers and journalists.

The demonstration, which began at the headquarters of the Tunisian National Journalists Union (SNJT) and headed towards the Ministry of Interior, was organised by civil society organisations and political activists who decried Tunisian President Kais Saied’s targeting of dissident voices.

Protesters shouted slogans against the Tunisian government and what they described as police violence.

Demonstrators also called out French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for alleged interference in Tunisian affairs, calling Mr Saied a gatekeeper to their anti-migrant policies.

Chaima Jebali, one of the rally's organisers, said protesters wanted to send a message to authorities that they “will not stand down and cannot accept the ongoing arrests as well as the government’s economic and social policies”.

“We decided to go to the streets again because we felt that there is a targeting of the liberties that we thought we would not have to defend again years after the Tunisian revolution,” she told The National.

Ms Jebali said the continuing attacks against political rights and freedom of expression are unacceptable.

“This is not the first protest we will organise and is only the beginning … Our endeavour is peaceful and calls for social, political and economic rights,” she said.

Among the protesters were familiar faces that have been present at other major demonstrations in the post-revolutionary period, during the rule of the Ennahda party.

Over the past 13 years, several youth groups were created during a time when Tunisia was hit by a wave of police violence as well as alleged corruption in state institutions.

According to journalist Miriam Mtiraoui, who works with public news agency TAP, Tunisian journalists have been one of the most heavily targeted groups in the government’s recent crackdown on rights and freedoms.

“There are ongoing restrictions on freedoms – if we write a certain social media post we could find ourselves facing baseless allegations,” she said.

“There is a visible regression in terms of the rights that we have acquired following the revolution and this is even indicated by numbers, especially Tunisia’s press freedom [index] ranking.”

According to the 2024 World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries, Tunisia sits at number 118, plummeting from number 73 in 2011.

“Due to this situation, we could describe Kais Saied as an oppressor and someone who has taken over all branches of authorities, and is now attempting to take over the fourth power [the media],” Mtiraoui told The National.

“We have fought against this policy of taming voices for years and as journalists we will keep writing articles that denounce such behaviour and we should stay strong and not stand down because we are the reflecting mirror of our society and a guarantee for freedom of speech.”

We should stay strong and not stand down because we are the reflecting mirror of our society and a guarantee for freedom of speech
Miriam Mtiraoui, Tunisian journalist

In the past two weeks, a number of outspoken figures including journalists, lawyers and activists have been jailed based on Tunisia’s Decree 54, which was issued by Mr Saied in September 2022, aimed at stopping the spread of false information and rumours online.

The decree states that anyone found to have used information networks to “promote [or] publish … false news” to harm public security and national defence could face a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($15,600).

Since its issuance, the decree has been used to prosecute those who have used either mainstream media outlets or social networks to criticise Mr Saied or his government.

Based on the decree, on Wednesday, prominent Tunisian journalists Mourad Zghidi and Borhen Bsaies were sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted of the spread of misinformation and defamation.

Prosecutors took aim at the journalists for critical statements they made on privately-owned radio station IFM as well as social media posts.

Tunisian police this month also detained outspoken lawyer and commentator Sonia Dahmani, after prosecutors issued a warrant for her arrest over comments she made on a radio show.

Updated: May 25, 2024, 3:49 AM