Tunisian Journalist Accused Of Insulting A Public Official To Face Trial Next Month

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A prominent Tunisian journalist was put under pre-trial detention on a judge's order after a Tuesday hearing in which he dangled the prospect of publishing reporting on corruption and the misuse of public funds by several ministers and public institutions.

Mohamed Boughalleb's court hearing came four days after he was arrested in Tunis on suspicion of insulting a public official on social media.

As Tunisia heads to a presidential election later this year, Boughalleb's arrest was the latest to earn condemnation from free speech advocates in the country where pro-democracy demonstrators sparked the Arab Spring last decade.

Boughalleb, a regular contributor on popular radio stations and frequent critic of Tunisia's president, is scheduled to face trial next month and could be sentenced to two to four years behind bars, his lawyer Nafaa Larbi told The Associated Press.

His arrest is the latest example of officials in Tunisia referring complaints to public prosecutors using a controversial 2022 law that free expression and civil liberties advocates have said is increasingly being misused to silence journalists and opponents of the government.

The law, known as Decree 54, was intended to combat cybercrime but rights activists say it has been used to prosecute high-profile journalists and opposition figures, including opposition leader Chaima Issa, political commentator Ziad El Heni and Sofiane Zneidi, a member of Tunisia’s largest opposition party Ennahda.

Human Rights Watch said in December that Decree 54 had been used “to detain, charge, or place under investigation at least 20 journalists, lawyers, students, and other critics for their public statements online or in the media.”

Zied Dabbar, the president of Tunisia's National Journalist Syndicate, decried Boughalleb's arrest as an indication of how routine the pursuit of journalists had become in Tunisia. Eight journalists currently face trial, he said.

“We can not produce on-demand journalism that conforms to the desires of those in power,” Dabbar said Monday on Radio Mosaique, the country's most listened to private station.

“What should a journalist do when he learns that a minister travels using public funds with a civil servant who didn't professionally have to be there? Must he keep quiet and not reveal the scandal?" he added.

“While respecting privacy, it would be absurd that we not address the misuse of public funds and corruption of the public servants from the government that are paid from our pockets to serve us and not themselves.”

Boughalleb's lawyer said during Tuesday's court hearing, the journalist said he intended to make public his reporting on corruption and waste of public funds regarding several ministers and public institutions.

His trial next month comes before President Kais Saied is expected to seek a second term in a yet-to-be-scheduled election. After winning the presidency on an anti-corruption platform in 2019, Saied later suspended Tunisia's parliament, rewrote the constitution to consolidate his own power and curtailed the independence of a judiciary that has since ramped up its pursuit of his critics and opponents.


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