A big step backward for Tunisia’s press

A year ago this week, Vivian Yee, a reporter at the New York Times, was abruptly summoned to the presidential palace in Tunisia for an audience with Kais Saied, the country’s president. “Welcome to Tunisia, where freedom of speech is protected with no interference in personal freedoms at all,” he said. Yee was wearing sandals, so the president’s chief of protocol sent for heels and requested that she wear them even though they were two sizes too big. She thought she’d be getting an interview, but instead, Saied, a former law professor, gave her a lecture, brandishing a paper-clipped copy of the US Constitution (which he used to teach) and comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, who, in order to defend the Constitution, Saied said, had to go to extraordinary lengths. Saied also quoted Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles de Gaulle, channeling the latter by asking, “Why do you think that, at sixty-seven, I would start a career as a dictator?”

Yee was in Tunisia because, just days earlier, Saied had suspended the country’s Parliament and sacked its prime minister, among other repressive steps. Media workers had been among those affected—including Yee, who, along with two colleagues, was briefly detained in a neighborhood of Tunis, the capital, before being let go with an exhortation not to report there. Elsewhere, at least twenty security personnel, citing judicial orders, raided the Tunis bureau of Al Jazeera, expelling staff and seizing equipment, while at least six journalists were harassed and/or assaulted by either police or protesters as they covered demonstrations.

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Since then, Saied’s power grab has persisted, and so have threats to the press. In October, authorities also raided Zaytouna TV, a private network, and arrested Amer Ayad, a talk-show host, after he read out a satirical Iraqi poem about dictators on air. The same month, officials ordered the closures of Nessma TV—another network, whose founder, Nabil Karoui, had run against Saied for president—and of the radio station al-Quran al-Kareem, citing licensing irregularities and seizing broadcast equipment. Last month, the journalist Salah Atiyah was arrested after claiming on TV that Saied had tried to shutter the offices of a powerful union. (The union’s leader denied this.) According to Al Jazeera, Atiyah recently initiated a hunger strike.

This state of affairs has represented something of a departure for Tunisia, which emerged as a relatively hopeful story for global democracy following the region-wide Arab Spring protests, which began in Tunisia in December 2010 after the fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in protest of his treatment by the state. As Layli Foroudi, a journalist who has reported from Tunisia, told me last year on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, freedom of expression was “one of the gains of the revolution,” even if some old, corrupt practices died hard. In 2019, Foroudi reported for CJR on the situation at Tunis Afrique Presse, the state news agency, amid hopes that a new generation of leaders would seal its messy, ongoing transition from official mouthpiece to independent news outlet.

A few weeks after Foroudi’s article was published, Saied won a landslide election victory. Quickly, journalists complained of limited access and of aggressive treatment by Saied’s guards. In 2020, two bloggers were prosecuted for criticizing Tunisia’s COVID response. Last spring, many journalists at TAP volubly protested after the government attempted to appoint Kamel Ben Younes as its new leader, warning that Ben Younes would threaten their editorial independence and citing his past ties to the propaganda apparatus of the Ben Ali regime. Staffers tried to block Ben Younes from entering their offices to take up his post; the protest was dispersed by police, but with journalists pledging to go on strike, Ben Younes resigned a few days later.

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In theory, at least, press freedom has been legally protected in Tunisia since the revolution, and was enshrined into a new constitution that came into effect in 2014. That constitution took a serious blow a year ago after Saied moved to accumulate power. This week, he finalized his move to finish it off altogether, calling a referendum on a new constitution that would formalize his consolidation of presidential authority. Voting took place yesterday. A draft of the proposed new constitution again nodded at press freedom, but it also made all enumerated rights contingent on a number of vague conditions, including “public security”; following criticism, Saied reworded that provision to make it sound more democratic, but Reporters Without Borders, among other observers, viewed the added language as insufficient, arguing that the rights afforded by the new constitution will still rest on “presidential goodwill.” For the press, the danger of the new constitution is “all in the ambiguity,” Thameur Mekki, the editor in chief of the news site Nawaat, told Al Jazeera recently, with the text leaving “a wide margin of interpretation that anyone in power can use if they see fit.”

Earlier this month, Sadok Belaïd, a jurist whom Saied had tapped to oversee the writing of the new constitution, disowned the draft published by Saied, warning that it departed from his recommendations and could lead to “a disgraceful dictatorial regime.” Protesters took to the streets to oppose the document; last Friday, police used force to disperse demonstrators and media workers, with a police officer slapping one journalist, Yousra Chikhaou, and tear-gassing another, Mehdi Jelassi, the leader of a national journalists’ union, at close quarters. Yesterday morning, as voting began, various journalists complained to the union and online that officials had obstructed their coverage at numerous polling sites. In the run-up to the referendum, coverage on public TV and radio had skewed in favor of proponents of the new constitution; yesterday was supposed to bring an “electoral silence” in the media while people voted, but Saied violated it after himself voting—going on TV, hailing “people power,” and referencing Rousseau and Montesquieu. In the end, turnout was not much higher than twenty-five percent, with many, though not all, opposition groups boycotting the vote. At time of writing, the result was not yet official, but the constitution is expected to be approved by a crushing margin, with exit polls putting the “yes” vote as high as ninety-three percent. Saied is already celebrating the outcome.

The boycott and low turnout have already, rightly, put the legitimacy of the outcome in question. Not that Saied is likely to concede the point; indeed, since before taking power, he has styled himself as a populist opposed to what he has characterized as corrupt liberal elites. (There has even been some suggestion that he scheduled the vote for July since wealthier Tunisians who were likelier to oppose his project would be on vacation then.) In the runup to the referendum, various news organizations ran interviews with voters who still support Saied as a strong leader they see as working to break through the country’s economic stagnation and post-2010 political chaos. But a broader theme in no few of these stories has been a wider sense of disaffection among many Tunisians. In a fresh dispatch yesterday, Yee, of the Times, reported that Saied has fallen in popularity since this time last year. “We’re discussing here the fate of a nation,” Amine Ghali, the head of a Tunis-based democracy-transition center, told Yee, “yet a lot of people have lost interest and faith in this entire process.”

A year ago, when Yee went to the presidential palace, one of her colleagues started to translate Saied’s words for her, but was ordered to stop. It turned out he was interfering with the filming of the meeting by a government camera crew that would later upload the whole thing to Saied’s Facebook page. “We were only props,” Yee wrote afterward. Since then, Saied’s government has treated other journalists even worse than that as he has has sought to stage-manage his consolidation of power. Contrary to his quoting of de Gaulle, Saied is only sixty-four. Tunisia’s democracy and media could be in an even darker place by the time he’s sixty-seven.

Below, more on media freedom around the world:

  • Ghana: Writing for Nieman Reports, Emmanuel K. Dogbevi, a Ghanaian journalist, argues that while his country is a thriving democracy “on paper,” the space for independent journalism is limited in practice. “Government institutions often go to court to resist freedom of information requests by journalists. They also face risks of arrest, detention, and torture from state agencies like the police, military, secret service, and political operatives of ruling parties,” Dogbevi writes. “The attacks have been systematic, and in nearly all cases, no one has been held to account.”
  • The Maldives: Yesterday, a coalition of local and international press groups—including the Maldives Journalist Association, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and RSF—called on the government of the Maldives to repeal or amend a provision in a recent law that they say grants the authorities “vague and overbroad” grounds to compel reporters to reveal their sources. The groups’ statement notes that the country’s government ignored concerns and recommendations that they previously expressed around the bill, as well as stonewalling a petition signed by 159 Maldivian journalists.
  • Saudi Arabia and the US: Politico’s West Wing Playbook newsletter reports on the “highly-aggressive” tactics of Nicolla Hewitt, a media consultant for the government of Saudi Arabia, during President Biden’s recent visit to the country. Hewitt is “a longtime American PR expert who has worked for television networks, the Clinton Global Initiative, and media and business figures such as Katie Couric and Richard Branson,” Politico reports. According to White House reporters who covered Biden’s trip, Hewitt peppered them with “repeated calls to their hotel landlines, sometimes at odd hours.” A US official said that while it’s not unusual for foreign countries to be concerned with US press coverage, “top Saudi officials were particularly sensitive to the country’s portrayal.”
  • Ukraine and the UK: Yesterday, the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union confirmed that the UK will host next year’s edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, a must-watch annual bacchanal of dazzling costumes and dubious pop music. As the winner of this year’s contest, Ukraine had been due to host, but the EBU concluded recently that that would be impossible due to Russia’s war against the country. (The UK came second.) The BBC said that it would make the event “a true reflection of Ukrainian culture alongside showcasing the diversity of British music and creativity.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Kevin O’Connor, Biden’s physician, wrote in a letter that Biden’s COVID symptoms have “almost completely resolved” after he tested positive last week. Reporters have still not had a chance to question O’Connor directly—a point of criticism among some members of the media—but they got to hear yesterday from Biden himself, with the president taking questions after he participated virtually in an event from his residence. Biden said that he is now “feeling good,” though his voice “is still raspy.”
  • After the editorial boards of the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and New York Post criticized Trump following last week’s January 6 hearing, commentators took notice due to Murdoch’s past support for Trump—but the pair’s divorce is not “the seismic event that some pretend it is,” Politico’s Jack Shafer argues, since Murdoch’s backing was always “transactional and extractive.” Meanwhile, Matt Gertz, of Media Matters for America, argues that Murdoch hasn’t yet broken with Trump at all, pointing to Fox in prime time.
  • New York’s David Freedlander explores why, unlike in cycles past, aspirants for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination have no interest in being profiled by mainstream media. GOP sources blamed media bias, but Freedlander offers a competing theory: that they don’t want to defend Trump and his election lies. He also notes that Republican politicians can retreat to a “robust” conservative-media universe these days, and that attacking, rather than engaging with, liberal media is now seen as a badge of honor.
  • The Miami Herald’s Sarah Blaskey reports on The Capitolist, a news site in Tallahassee that came to the defense of Florida Power & Light as the utility faced public criticism in recent years. The site styled itself as independent, if “staunchly conservative and pro-business,” Blaskey writes—but behind the scenes, it was secretly “bankrolled and controlled” by FPL executives via a “small group of trusted intermediaries from an Alabama consulting firm.” (FPL consultants also surveilled a Florida-based journalist.)
  • Allen G. Breed, of the Associated Press, spoke with Jean Heller, the then-AP reporter who broke the story of the US government’s heinous Tuskegee syphilis study fifty years ago yesterday. Heller felt no elation when she realized she could prove her story, Breed reports. “I knew that people had died, and I was about to tell the world who they were and what they had,” she said. “And finding any joy in that… would have been unseemly.”
  • In media-jobs news, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, the Houston bureau chief at the LA Times, will be the Texas correspondent for the Washington Post. Elsewhere, Madison Malone Kircher, formerly of New York and Slate, and Joe Bernstein, formerly of BuzzFeed, are both joining the Times, where they’ll cover the internet and adjacent topics. And TBS canceled Samantha Bee’s late-night show, Full Frontal, citing business reasons.
  • In media-business news, Keith Olbermann is launching a daily news podcast in partnership with iHeartMedia, promising politics, sports, and a dash of media criticism. Elsewhere, Cuadrilla Capital, an investment firm, acquired Chartbeat, an analytics tool for publishers that’s aiming to build out new products to help media businesses grow. And Insider shuttered its politics desk in the UK just months after hiring an editor for it.
  • Der Spiegel, the German magazine, published a first ever interview with the anonymous whistleblower who leaked the Panama Papers in 2015. Among other things, the whistleblower said that they remain worried for their safety—they contacted Der Spiegel via voice software, to ensure anonymity—and claimed that they had initially reached out to reporters at the Times and the Journal in 2015, only to find them “uninterested.”
  • And Tim Giago—a Native journalist who launched the first independently owned Native newspaper in the US, the Lakota Times, which later became Indian Country Todayhas died. He was eighty-eight. Giago also founded the Lakota Journal and Native Sun News, both in South Dakota, as well as the Native American Journalists Association, where he was the first president. “He always pushed for more,” Mark Trahant, an ICT editor, said.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: In this photo provided by the Tunisian Presidency, Tunisian President Kais Saied casts his vote at a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, Monday, July 25, 2022. Tunisians head to the polls Monday to vote on a new constitution. (Slim Abid/Tunisian Presidency via AP)