Tunisian critics and investigative journalists face intimidation and harassment

Association

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the continued use of emergency legislation in Tunisia has contributed to a decline in respect for freedom of association. 

In a recent scandal, IWatch, a Tunisian civil society organisation (CSO), fell victim to a carefully orchestrated smear campaign linked to the ruling party, Nidaa Tounes. IWatch works to fight corruption and has been instrumental in exposing systemic tax evasion and advocating for whistle-blower protection laws before the Tunisian parliament. The organisation has faced challenges and harassment from the authorities due to its anti-corruption activities. 

On 17th April 2017, a recording was leaked to the public featuring Tunisia’s private TV Station, Nessma, and the founding member of Nidaa Tounes ordering staff to discredit IWatch. The recording can be viewed below. 

On 18th April 2017, Transparency International (TI) called on the Tunisian authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the incident. In a statement, TI declared: 

“These threats to intimidate IWatch and those associated with it are sickening and must be investigated fully. We fully support the work of IWatch in Tunisia. It has investigated and exposed corruption and is working with the authorities to introduce the kind of legal framework that will stop the corrupt. Its members are courageous and dedicated. They are working for a Tunisia that respects the rule of law and provides justice for all.

The authorities should acknowledge this and pledge to protect its work and that of all civil society. International Civil Society Organizations will not tolerate threats against our members struggling against corruption and will not be intimidated by these attacks".

In a separate development, CSOs have called for greater transparency with regard to government policy on migrants in Tunisia. Ten civil society groups petitioned local authorities to make available to the public a recent agreement between Germany and Tunisia on the voluntary repatriation of approximately 1,500 migrants who were refused asylum in Germany. During a recent visit to Tunisia by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 3rd March 2017, the Tunisian authorities reportedly agreed to accept the migrants in return for 250 million EUR in aid for development projects. 

Expression

The recent detention and interrogation of a Tunisian journalist is an example of the authorities' assault on investigative journalism. Sami Ben Gharbia, a well-known Tunisian journalist and editorial managing director at Nawaat, was detained and interrogated for six hours on 3rd May 2017. Gharbia was targeted after Nawaat published a leaked version of a controversial economic reconciliation draft law that could pardon former Tunisian officials who were allegedly involved in corruption. In a statement, the news website commented on Gharbia's unwarranted detention, declaring that: 

"Nawaat condemns the harassment of its editorial team's director as well as the manifest intention of authorities to attack its journalists. We consider these shameful proceedings as a serious threat against the freedom of expression and the right to organise".

During his interrogation, Gharbia was reportedly pressured by Tunisian authorities to reveal the source of the leaked document and divulge information about contributors to Nawaat.   

In a positive development for freedom of expression in Tunisia, the Independent Press Council (IPC) was officially launched on 20th April 2017. The Tunisian National Union of Journalists was instrumental in advocating for the IPC. Many believe it will play a key role in reversing the decline in media freedom. 

This victory for freedom of expression comes at a time when prominent blogger and freedom of speech activist Amira Yahyahoui recently drew attention to the issue of media ownership, as many outlets are controlled by powerful economic and political interests in Tunisia, thereby influencing public opinion and narrowing citizens' access to independent, objective information. While acknowledging that freedom of expression has improved in recent years, Yahyahoui maintained that journalists still face intimidation, which has contributed to some selective reporting and self-censorship among media professionals. 

Peaceful Assembly 

During the last few months, labour rights have been the driving force behind protests and strikes in Tunisia.  

  • A general strike calling for regional economic development and employment took place in Tataouine on 11th April 2017. Thousands took to the streets to demand jobs in the oil-rich region. There were no reports of the protest turning violent. 
  • On 28th March 2017, judges in Tunisia called for a general strike in protest over deteriorating working conditions. Members of the judiciary have called for an increase in salary in 2017.