Reporter’s defamation charge takes Tunisia another step back to darkest era
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores the criminaldefamation charge that the Tunisian authorities have brought against a newspaper reporter over an article in the paper and a Facebook post about alleged corruption involving the religious affairs minister. The charge confirms the government’s growing authoritarianism, RSF says.
Monia Arfaoui, a reporter for the daily newspaper Assabah, was charged on the evening of 31 March after being questioned by the judicial police for the second time in six days. She is the target of two defamation complaints by religious affairs minister Ibrahim Chebbi, one about the article, published on 8 July, and one about the subsequent Facebook post.
The article said Chebbi “bypassed all the procedures” for organising the pilgrimage to Mecca and “mismanaged public money” by favouring regional interests and some of his “relatives” in the selection of guides, imams and administrators, and members of the official delegation that accompanied the pilgrims. In her Facebook post, she said Chebbi had failed in his duties
“Monia Arfaoui’s indictment in connection with her investigative reporting is the latest example of the Tunisian government’s growing authoritarianism and its attempts to restrict freedom of expression and force journalists to censor themselves. This return to the past is unacceptable after all the progress made since the Tunisian revolution. We urge President Kais Saied to prioritise respect for press freedom and not allow the country to sink back to the dark Ben Ali era, when journalists were restricted to reporting what the president did.
In a statement posted on its website, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) denounced the government’s“obstinacy” in using Decree 54 against Arfaoui. Shortly after this controversial presidential decree on information and communication systems was promulgated last September, RSF criticised its Section 24, which threatens freedom of expressionand clearly aims to silence journalists and dissent under the cover of combatting rumours and fake news.
The SNJT statement called for the immediate withdrawal of the proceedings against Arfaoui, pointing out that this is the second time the Tunisian government has used this draconian decree against journalists. It was used in November 2022 to bring a defamation case against The Business News, an online newspaper, over an article criticising Prime Minister Najla Bouden’s record.
Entitled “Rumours and fake news,” Section 24 is particularly alarming. It says that knowingly using information and communication systems and networks to produce, spread, broadcast, send, or write false news, false data, rumours, false documents or documents that are falsified or falsely attributed to others, with the aim of infringing the rights of others or prejudicing public security or national defence or sowing terror among the population is punishable by five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars (15,670 euros), or up to 10 years in prison “if the person targeted is a public official or similar.”
The increase in press freedom violations in Tunisia is worrying the European Parliament, which passed an emergency resolutionon 16 March urging the Tunisian authorities to end “the ongoing crackdown on civil society” and calling for the release of Radio Mosaïque FM director Noureddine Boutar, who has been arrested on 13 February. The resolution called on the European Commission to adopt sanctions against the Tunisian authorities.