Geneva – The sentencing of a Tunisian journalist to five years in prison is harsh and reflects a significant decline in press freedom in Tunisia, as it is a result of arbitrary official policies and practices, said Euro-Med Monitor in a statement.
Euro-Med Monitor expressed deep concern over the recent decision of the Tunis court’s specialised anti-terrorism department to issue a five-year sentence to Radio Mosaïque FM’s Kairouan-based reporter, Khalifa Guesmi, for publishing a report on journalism ethics and standards. The court had issued a preliminary ruling last November, after an official security source obtained the report, imprisoning Guesmi for a year. However, it unexpectedly and unjustifiably increased the sentence to five years in the appeal session on 15 May.
“The verdict was shocking and unexpected, particularly as the judges were presented with all possible evidence of my innocence,” said Guesmi in a statement to Euro-Med Monitor. “The judiciary is not independent, and the authorities aim to silence journalists, limiting freedom of expression and press. To achieve this, they utilise laws and decrees that contravene the Tunisian Constitution and international treaties.”
The court convicted Guesmi of “participating in the intentional disclosure of information related to interception operations and the data obtained from them” under Tunisia’s anti-terrorism law and Penal Code, following the online publication of his article on the dismantling of a terrorist cell in the city of Kairouan. Guesmi told Euro-Med Monitor that he has not worked since the verdict took effect. “I am currently discreetly moving around due to fear of arrest and imprisonment,” he explained. “My current status is undisclosed, and my phone has been confiscated since March 2022.” He added that a travel ban has been imposed against him.
“We are witness to an abyssal decline in the level of press freedom in Tunisia, as journalists are being pursued and imprisoned by security and judicial authorities simply for carrying out their legitimate work,” said Mohammad Moghabat, Euro-Med Monitor’s regional office director in Lebanon.
“The unprecedented ruling against Guesmi is the natural result of President Kais Saied’s control of the judiciary, which he uses to silence opponents and dissidents,” Moghabat stated. He called Saied’s approach “vengeful and exclusionary” and predicted that it will likely persist and intensify, “especially considering the concerning international silence towards Saied’s practices, which he has been implementing for the past two years, contradicting the principles of democratic regimes”.
Tunisian authorities’ crackdown on journalists and the media has escalated significantly since Saied announced his exceptional measures on 25 July 2021, and since subsequent presidential decrees which have primarily affected freedom of opinion, expression, and the press, particularly Decree 54 of 2022. The Decree legalised the breach and monitoring of individuals’ communications and data, depriving them of the right to maintain the confidentiality of data related to their identity or behaviour when using communication devices and media. As a result, it restricts the ability of journalists to exercise their activities freely and confidentially.
The attacks on press freedom in Tunisia have increased steadily in recent years. A total of 257 attacks took place between May 2022 and May 2023, marking the highest number of attacks recorded in the last five years. Security violations against journalists and the media in Tunisia manifest in various forms, including physical assault, arbitrary detention, judicial prosecution, work prohibition, information withholding, and, in some instances, threats and incitement.
In the latest incident of physical assault against journalists in the country, which occurred on 13 May, two security officers attacked journalist Siwar Amaidia, head of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists’ southwest branch. The assault occurred while she was covering a health event at a hospital in the state of Gafsa. During the incident, the officers forcefully pushed Amaidia and threatened to suspend her from work, resulting in her falling ill.
The prosecution and trial of journalists under the anti-terrorism law demonstrate authorities’ extremist approach to suppressing press freedom and free expression in Tunisia, as well as an official insistence on silencing journalists and dissidents by restricting their activities through the use of arbitrary laws with vague and broadly worded provisions. This targeting of journalists runs counter to authorities’ overt pledge to protect the press and its liberties, plus their constitutional obligations and relevant international obligations, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
Tunisian authorities must overturn the judicial ruling to imprison journalist Khalifa Guesmi, cease the prosecution of journalists and dissidents, ensure that the judiciary is independent and impartial, and release all detained journalists and dissidents involved in cases related to freedom of expression.