Tunisia tightens restrictions on journalists; press freedom at risk claims union

Violations against journalists in Tunisia are on the rise as authorities try to control local media, Tunisia's journalists' union said on Tuesday, warning this threatened press freedom and the country's young democracy.

Tunisia's once-staid media have enjoyed a new lease of life since the removal of strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, but activists and politicians say the government is now seeking to impose some of the same type of controls.

Under Ben Ali, media in Tunisia were among the most repressed in Africa and Arab world as part of his crackdown on opposition and criticism of his autocratic government. But rights watchdogs say hard-won advances in press freedom are under threat since two major Islamist attacks in 2015 killed more than 60 foreign tourists and increased fears over security.

Since these attacks, Tunisia has been under a state of emergency that allows officials to curtail some rights in the name of national security.

"Government officials seek to control the media and exert pressure through telephone instructions and practices of the old regime have returned," Neji Bghouri, president of journalists union, told a news conference.

Bghouri said journalists in state television and radios as well as at the state news agency complained of intervention in their work by officials.

On Monday, Ridha Bel Hadj, an opponent of the government, complained of interference by presidential officials who tried to block his interview on private Hannibal TV after he used the occasion to criticise the presidency. But presidential spokesman Reda Bougezi said the presidency did not intervene in any media content and strongly defended the freedom of the press. He called on journalists to denounce anyone who seeks to control the media.

Kahoula Chabeh, a member of Tunisian journalists union, said that 41 local and foreign journalists were beaten by police, harassed, insulted or treated aggressively just last month in attempts to prevent them from working.

"Police have returned to old practices to tighten up control on journalists, harass them and intervene in their work under pretext of the state of emergency and the fight against religious extremism," Bghouri said.

Last March, media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed in a letter to Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed its concern over the decline in media freedom in recent months in the North African country. Some local journalists face military and civilian courts because of their stories, Reporters Without Borders said, adding that permanent correspondents of foreign media also suffer from constraints by officials on their reporting.

Since its 2011 uprising, Tunisia has been held up by western partners as a model for a democratic transition with a new constitution, free elections and a consensus among secular and Islamist rivals that helped keep the country on track.    (Reuters)

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