By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) – Since taking a lead role in criticizing Tunisia’s increasingly powerful president, prominent journalist Mohamed Boughalleb has been out of work, part of what he and press rights activists believe is a quiet policy to chill dissent.
Boughalleb was well-known for his scathing critiques, spearing figures across the political spectrum on his radio show as free speech blossomed after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
But as his show closed and job opportunities suddenly dried up this summer, he started to fear that Tunisia’s place as a rare beacon of press rights in the region – one of the few clear achievements of the “Arab Spring” – is in danger.
There has been no widespread crackdown on press outlets or journalists, and President Kais Saied has promised to uphold freedom of speech. But Tunisia’s main journalists’ union, the press syndicate, is still worried.
It has accused state television of blacklisting guests critical of Saied – accusations dismissed by the broadcaster and the government.
The president has passed a law mandating jail terms for anyone publishing reports deemed as “false information”, and journalists complain about what they see as a campaign of intimidation by Saied’s supporters on social media.
“How can the president say he protects freedoms when mouths are silenced? How will he know what people want from him then,” Boughalleb said.
Some critics of Saied accuse him of mounting a coup by seizing broad powers last summer and shutting down parliament to rule by decree, moves he later ratified through a referendum on a new constitution.
Saied has said the changes were needed to take on what he saw as a corrupt elite, and often says he will protect the rights and freedoms Tunisians won in 2011.
‘NO ONE WILL SILENCE MY VOICE’
The state news agency TAP continues to report frequently on subjects that would be ignored by government media in other Arab countries, including protests against the president.
And some private media also continue to broadcast strong direct criticism of Saied, as well as satirical programmes targeting him and his allies, and say they will continue to push the boundaries.
But many journalists say they now face a more hostile environment when reporting on issues that are politically difficult for Saied, such as recent food shortages, or when directly criticising his policies.
Boughalleb now makes his own show on YouTube. In a friend’s office he pulls black curtains over the windows as he prepares to film an episode.
“No one will silence my voice,” he said.
He had presented a major show on Shems FM radio for six years, spearing successive coalition governments and opposition parties, including secularists, Islamists, conservatives and leftists that have dominated Tunisia since 2011.
He was also a frequent guest on politics shows on state television and private channels.
When his contract with Shems expired this summer, it was not renewed. Other media he approached told him they could not hire him “on higher instructions”, he said.
‘DESPITE EVERYTHING, THERE IS FREE SPEECH’
The head of Shems FM said he could not comment on contracts. The office of the prime minister declined to comment on allegations of media restrictions. State television has rejected accusations it excludes critics of Saied, saying it has cut back on talk shows.
“We will not give up or be silenced. This is a trust that was paid for by martyrs in the revolution,” Amira Mohamed, the deputy president of the press syndicate, said.
Press freedom in Tunisia now faced its biggest challenge since 2011, and the syndicate was prepared to call strikes in response, Mohamed added.
At Mosaique FM, one of the biggest independent broadcasters in Tunisia, journalists continue to voice strong criticism of Saied.
In one recent episode of his show, satirical journalist Haythem Makki included scathing reports on Saied’s new electoral law, his expansion of influence over the electoral commission and on media outlets Makki sees as cosying up to the authorities.
“There are legal threats, with years in prison for offenders,” but he would continue to work as he has done, Makki said.
Another prominent Mosaique journalist, Elyes Gharbi, said it had become far harder to speak to officials or access previously public information. Government ministers rarely took interviews, he added.
“Despite everything, there is still free speech. But at the same time we have to resist daily to keep it that way,” he said.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Andrew Heavens)