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Tunisia ‘annihilating’ free speech with media crackdown: Amnesty

Freedom of speech has regressed dramatically under Kais Saied’s rule [Getty/file photo]

A crackdown by Tunisian authorities on journalists and media figures is “methodically annihilating” what little remains of the country’s hard-won freedoms, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

The rights groups said in a joint statement that authorities have “ramped up” their “repression of free speech” under Decree 54, a law against “false news”, as the country readies for presidential elections set to take place this autumn.

“By attacking journalists and other media figures, Saied’s government is moving to put the last nail in the coffin of Tunisia’s civic space,” Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa director, said.

The groups decried what they called the “undermining (of) the judiciary” in Tunisia. President Kais Saied dismissed more than 50 judges shortly after a sweeping power grab in 2021, while last year the government began a series of arrests that have most recently targeted political opponents and civil society figures.

“Tunisian authorities are methodically annihilating the last remaining gains of the 2011 revolution: freedom of expression and the press,” Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, said in the statement.

Ahead of the elections, Morayef urged the government to “ensure that all Tunisians are able to freely express their views” and that “independent media are able to conduct their reporting free from harassment or intimidation”.

Both groups called on authorities to “immediately release those detained and drop all prosecutions for expression”.

They also called for the repeal of “Decree-Law 2022-54, along with vague or overbroad provisions of other existing codes that have been used to criminalise free expression”.

The groups highlighted the cases of media figures Borhen Bssais and Mourad Zeghidi, who were sentenced last week to one year in prison, and the co-founder of independent media Inkyfada, who was sentenced to nine months in prison.

They also mentioned the forceful arrest of lawyer and political commentator Sonia Dahmani under the same decree, after masked police raided the Tunisian bar association headquarters on May 11 – two days before they arrested a second lawyer.

According to the rights groups, “over 70 people, including political opponents, lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders and social media users have been subjected to arbitrary prosecutions since the end of 2022”.

“At least 40 remain arbitrarily detained as of May 2024, with most of them held in connection with the exercise of their internationally protected rights.”

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