Al Jazeera reporter detained in Tunisia amidst clampdown on media freedom

Tunisian authorities have detained a reporter from Al Jazeera, reported the network’s bureau chief on Thursday, raising concerns over a rising number of journalists imprisoned in the north African country.

“Security forces raided the home of Samir Sassi, a journalist at Al Jazeera’s Tunisia office, leading to his arrest,” said Lotfi Hajji, the director of the network’s bureau in Tunis.

Hajji stated that the police did not provide any reasons for the arrest, which took place late on Wednesday, nor did they disclose the location where Sassi was being held. Tunisian authorities have yet to issue an official statement.

Hajji further mentioned that the security forces also confiscated “Sassi’s computer, phone, as well as the phones of his wife and children.”

Despite the closure of Al Jazeera’s Tunisia bureau since President Kais Saied’s sudden power grab in July 2021, the network’s journalists have remained accredited and continued their coverage in Tunisia. However, no explanation was given by the authorities for shutting down the bureau at that time.

Tunisia has faced criticism for its crackdown on freedom of speech, including the arrest of over 30 journalists in 2023, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

In a publicly published open letter to President Saied on Thursday, the IFJ expressed its “deepest concern regarding the frequent imprisonment of journalists, which is in direct violation of the Tunisian constitution’s provisions on freedom of expression and media.”

The letter highlighted the case of Tunisian journalist Zied el-Heni, who was arrested on December 29 after criticizing Tunisia’s commerce minister, Kalthoum Ben Rejeb, during a radio show hosted by him. El-Heni gained prominence during the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab spring. He remains in detention, awaiting a trial scheduled for January 10.

“El-Heni’s case is not an isolated incident but rather indicative of a systematic policy employed to exploit legal procedures and the judicial system to intimidate, harass, and incarcerate journalists,” stated the IFJ.

Last summer, Volker Türk, the United Nations human rights chief, expressed deep concerns over the crackdown on media in Tunisia, with vaguely worded legislation being used to criminalize criticism.

Currently, seventeen journalists in Tunisia are facing trial, as reported by local media.

Some journalists, including Heni, have been prosecuted under Decree 54, which imposes prison sentences of up to 10 years for those accused of spreading “false news.” Anthony Bellanger, the general secretary of the IFJ, accused the Tunisian government of “attacking journalists” earlier this week and stated that the legislation “is being utilized to silence journalists and opponents of the president.”

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