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Monday, Mar 27, 2023

Tunisia crackdown on opposition and media alarms rights groups

Tunisia crackdown on opposition and media alarms rights groups

Ten public figures arrested since Saturday as President Kais Saied pursues what Amnesty calls a repression of dissent
Rights groups have expressed grave alarm at a crackdown on opposition figures and the media in Tunisia, where 10 public figures have been arrested since Saturday as President Kais Saied seemingly moves to stamp out dissent.

“We’re witnessing the increasing repression of dissent in Tunisia,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and north Africa. “Saied is using all the resources of the state to signal his absolutist agenda. Anyone who opposes him, either politically or in the media, is at risk in this witch-hunt,” said Guellali, who is based in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis.

Those arrested in the past week include a prominent businessman, the director of a popular private radio station and members of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party. They are mainly critics of Saied, who in 2021 sacked the government, froze parliament and seized almost total power in moves rivals have called a coup.

The US, UN, Germany and others have also signalled their concern over the latest blow to the fragile democratic gains made in the birthplace of the Arab spring, where protests in 2011 ousted its autocratic leader, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

In a statement this week, the UN commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, expressed concern over the conspiratorial nature of many of the accusations against those arrested, including involvement in plots against the state.

On Thursday, members of the SNJT journalists’ union demonstrated against the arrests in Tunis and called for the release of Noureddine Boutar, the director general of the private radio station Mosaique FM.

“The authorities want to bring both private and public media into line, and [Boutar’s] arrest is an attempt to intimidate the whole sector,” the SNJT’s director, Mahdi Jlassi, said.

According to Boutar’s lawyers, police questioning focused on the station’s editorial policy, rather than the suspicion of any legal wrongdoing. Mosaique FM has often been critical of Saied, making it an outlier in a media environment where most titles and platforms either self-censor, or uncritically parrot the president’s attack lines.

“We have no plans to change our editorial line,” said Haythem el Mekki, a commentator on Mosaique’s popular midday programme, and an outspoken critic of Saied. “If we change now, it’s like admitting we’re guilty, or have been doing something wrong. We’re not doing it.”

Saied has hit back at the criticism, saying in a video posted on the presidency’s Facebook page on Thursday: “Has a single newspaper been shut down? Has a single programme been banned? Has a single journalist been prosecuted for anything relating to journalism?”

He also spoken out against criticism from abroad, saying: “We’re not occupied or a protectorate, we’re a sovereign state, and we know very well what we’re doing.”

Tunisia has been badly hit by economic troubles in recent months, fuelling anger towards Saied. Strikes have become commonplace, as have shortfalls in subsidised food staples such as pasta, coffee and sugar.

Economists have attributed many of the problems to delays in securing a desperately needed IMF bailout, but Saied has placed the blame on those who oppose him, accusing them of planning to foment social chaos.

Alongside the recent crackdown, Saied has been engaged in an ongoing battle with the country’s powerful UGTT union, which has also denounced the arrests. The union is planning a series of strikes over what it claims is a reneging by the government on earlier promises to raise public sector salaries during negotiations with the IMF.

While Saied still enjoys a measure of popular support, it has fallen significantly since his power grab in 2021, which was welcomed at the time by many Tunisians who were frustrated with political factionalism and inaction on the part of the legislature.

In a recent blow to his legitimacy, turnout in two rounds of voting for a new parliament and a redrafted constitution stood at just 8.8% and 11%.

The new constitution greatly reduces the prominence of Tunisia’s political parties, which have been characterised by Saied as enemies of the people.

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