Tunisia’s senior leadership vowed in meetings with the Committee to Protect Journalists in Tunis on Wednesday to uphold press freedom as the country transitions to democracy, and to protect journalists assaulted by security forces or threatened by extremists.
“Public freedom and freedom of the press are our red lines and our role is to make them a reality,” Prime Minister Habib Essid told a visiting CPJ delegation.
The meeting followed the publication on Tuesday of CPJ’s report “In Tunisia, press freedom erodes amid security fears” that warned that hard-earned media freedoms in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab uprisings of 2011, were under threat with journalists caught between Islamist extremists and security services sensitive to criticism following two high-profile terrorist attacks that killed more than 60 people this year.
The report, launched at a press conference in Tunis, detailed physical assaults on journalists by security services, threats by Islamists, and draft laws in Parliament that would restrict journalists’ ability to cover security issues and limit access to information.
“Assaults on journalists are the exception not the rule and government policy is to protect journalists,” Prime Minister Essid said. Asked if this applied to the security services, he added: “Those who violate the law, no matter their rank, should be prosecuted.”
Essid said the government had already provided security for several journalists who have been threatened by extremist groups.
He added that the government is open to suggestions for amendments to an anti-terrorism act passed in July and on the Repression of Offences against the Armed Forces bill, a law currently under consideration that would shield security forces from criticism by the press.
In a separate meeting, Tunisia’s president and elder statesman Beji Caid Essebsi told the CPJ delegation that the country’s “project” of transitioning from the 24-year dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to democracy required a free press.
“It is important to me that people inside and outside know that Tunisia respects the press. My job is to respect the constitution and public freedom. Our project will not succeed without a free press,” he said at his presidential office overlooking the Mediterranean.
Essebsi, 88, said he had instructed the government to respect the rights of journalists to do their job. “In spite of daily attacks against me, I have never gone after any journalist,” he said.
CPJ raised the case of two Tunisian journalists kidnapped in neighboring Libya in September 2014 with both leaders. The fate of the journalists, Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Guetari, is unknown and their families have urged the Tunisian government to do more to determine their status.
The prime minister said the government had a responsibility to find out what had happened to the reporters and acknowledged that misleading information, sometimes from officials, had complicated the situation.
“I give instructions to my cabinet not to talk about the case without having accurate information,” Essid said.
The CPJ delegation comprised CPJ board member Mhamed Krichen of Al-Jazeera, Deputy Director Robert Mahoney, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour, and report author Safa Ben Said.