On November 14 at 11 a.m., on receiving a summons asking him to report the same day at 3 p.m. to the criminal brigade of Gorjani (Tunis), Nizar Bahloul, director of the online media Business News, did not think that reality was catching up one of his columns. He who, in February, wrote: “It looks like a joke, but we are going straight there. After the Assembly, the government and justice, the media will also have to submit. Nor did he think he was one of the first who would have to live, therefore to testify, to a proper interrogation on an article of November 10 entitled: “Najla Bouden, the nice woman” and signed Raouf Ben Hedi.
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The text in question takes stock of the actions carried out by the head of government, Najla Bouden, appointed a year ago. It lists facts, comments on them and highlights a certain immobility and above all the deterioration of the situation in Tunisia where daily life, between scarcity and high cost of living, is becoming unbearable. Nothing that has not already been said, written or relayed by other media.
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This analysis, however, seems to have disturbed and Nizar Bahloul was summoned following a complaint from the Minister of Justice, Leïla Jaffel. We will not know the content, but those close to Business News, shocked by this practice which was believed to have disappeared with Ben Ali, suggested that the authorities would accuse the article of contravening Decree-Law 54 on cybercrime of September 2022. A text intended to protect citizens from false information, but which above all locks freedom of expression and thereby that of the press. To journalists who warned of the risks of slippage, the authorities had assured that freedom of the press would be respected.
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This did not prevent Nizar Bahloul from being heard for three hours, then waiting another hour for the public prosecutor’s decision whether or not to release him. The decree-law specifies that it concerns all false information affecting the prestige of the State and public security, and leaves the judge a power discretion on possible prosecutions. Thus, a press article which reveals no backstage, no state secret but presents a simple balance sheet, because it is neither flattering nor laudatory, can lead to a warrant of committal. Enough to invalidate all the comments on the guarantee of freedom of the press.
Bloggers already heard
If Business News is the first important media to have experienced these new practices, bloggers like the one on the “Hay Ettadhamen” page have been heard under the same conditions during the previous weeks. Nizar Bahloul was released after his hearing, but the tone is set: journalists are now in the crosshairs of the government, which, paradoxically and moreover, does not give the media the means to work by simply refusing to communicate or inform the editors.
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The situation could be content with being absurd, except that the law in force can at any time and according to interpretations criminalize the practice of journalism. As a result, the profession is not very reassured and holds its breath while counting on a firm position taken by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) so that this incident does not become an unfortunate precedent. But five days before the Francophonie Summit to be held in Djerba on November 19 and 20, he will certainly challenge the guests on the preservation of freedoms in Tunisia, the only tangible achievement of a transition inaboutie.