Tunisians Mourn a Hard-Fought Freedom Rapidly Slipping Away

Mosaïque FM, Tunisia’s most popular radio station, comes to life each morning around 5:30 a.m. with the martial strains of the national anthem. Next comes a voice crooning a verse from the Quran, then music and news, followed by the political show “Watch What They Say,” which has chronicled the floundering of the country’s young democracy and its recent U-turn toward autocracy.

The show’s host, Hajer Tlili, says she specializes in catching politicians out in their inconsistencies and hypocrisies. But lately, it has been Ms. Tlili who has had to consider what she says.

The director of Mosaïque, an independent station, was jailed from February to May. One of its reporters has been sentenced to five years in prison; two more have been interrogated over criticizing the government.

“Every day I’ve thought, ‘I could be next,’” said Ms. Tlili, 36. “But I’ve kept working as usual. I love my job. I can’t go back to dictatorship again.”

It was the first time she had felt that way, she said, since her earliest days in journalism, just after Tunisia overthrew its longtime dictator in 2011, inspiring a wave of uprisings across the Arab world.

That ushered in a decade-long experiment with democracy that many called the greatest achievement of the Arab Spring. Young Tunisians like Ms. Tlili flung themselves into politics, activism and media in a frothy rush of excitement, like champagne spraying.

But the years without autocracy have started to seem like a blip.

National and soccer team flags for sale in a Tunis street. “When you have a dictatorship, people tend to become small and respectful,” one Tunisian analyst said.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

President Kais Saied sidelined the North African country’s democratic institutions two years ago, re-establishing one-man rule. More than 20 journalists now face prison time, and other Tunisians have been jailed for antigovernment Facebook posts.

In April, books critical of Mr. Saied were pulled from a government-sponsored book fair. In May, a young rapper was arrested over a satirical song about drug laws and police corruption, set to a twinkly tune from “Babar,” the cartoon about the elephant.

The president’s crackdown on post-revolutionary gains has gone beyond free speech.

Mr. Saied has largely stripped the judiciary of its independence, arrested opposition figures and rewritten the constitution to increase the powers of his own office. But the gradual curbing of free speech stands out because, when asked to assess their revolution, Tunisians often say that freedom of expression was the only concrete achievement to come from it.

“I grew up in freedom. I was raised on freedom. It’s the only thing we got out of the revolution, freedom of expression,” said Youssef Chelbi, the 27-year-old rapper who was arrested over the “Babar” song. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”

“I was raised on freedom,” said Youssef Chelbi, the rapper arrested over a satirical song.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Mr. Saied ordered him released after a public outcry. Still, the chill persists: Rising numbers of Tunisians feel uncomfortable discussing politics, according to recent polls.

Yet even Ms. Tlili and her radio station colleagues acknowledge that many listeners might care less about being able to speak out than about putting bread on the table. The years of democracy delivered mostly economic setbacks and dysfunction, if plenty of freedom to complain about democracy’s failures.

When Mr. Saied took over in 2021, many Tunisians cheered. But now, as the economy teeters, people are “lost about which is more important, eating or thinking,” said Elyes Gharbi, the host of Mosaïque’s popular “Midi Show,” which offers political commentary.

Anyone who grew up during the pre-2011 dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali remembers how it was. Tunisians kept quiet about politics, even around friends. News outlets signed pledges not to cover politics. The business press knew better than to write about how the Ben Ali family had looted economic assets. Religion, too, was off limits.

“When you have a dictatorship, people tend to become small and respectful and to say that authority is needed,” said Aymen Boughanmi, a political analyst and “Midi Show” regular.

Founded in 2003, Mosaïque rose to become Tunisia’s most popular independent station by broadcasting only music and shows about entertainment, culture and sports. One minute of news played every hour.

The offices of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists in Tunis. The country’s media transformed after the revolution.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Mr. Ben Ali’s toppling in 2011 burst a dam.

Three days afterward, the website Business News, which, true to its name, had never touched politics, published an impassioned mea culpa. It apologized for Tunisian journalists’ “participation in the plot of silence, for our self-censorship and our servility,” adding: “It must be hoped that, in the future, Tunisian journalists and media will no longer bend their backs to any power.”

Almost overnight, politics consumed the programming at Mosaïque. It devoted hours of coverage to the latest efforts to set up national elections, form political parties and draft a new constitution.

Ms. Tlili had joined Mosaïque the year before the uprising, but senior colleagues were no more experienced in political journalism. After the revolution, they packed their schedules with training programs, eager to learn.

“Suddenly,” she said, “it was a new country.”

For all the heady early optimism, government security services held onto some old habits, occasionally arresting people over Facebook posts.

The Tunisian media, for its part, often fell short of the standards Business News had laid out. Struggling with lethargic advertising revenue, many outlets took funding from political parties, compromising their independence.

Mosaïque was one of the few exceptions, thanks to the revenue it kept pulling in with a mix of politics, news, entertainment and music. Successive governments sometimes grumbled about its coverage, Ms. Tlili said, but its director shrugged at the angry calls, and the news churned on.

Ms. Tlili hosts “Watch What They Say,” a probing talk show. “I love my job,” she said. “I can’t go back to dictatorship again.”Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Things were quick to revert once Mr. Saied seized full power in 2021, as if pre-revolution muscle memory was kicking in. Outlets soon stopped inviting opposition politicians and critical pundits to appear. Government ministers stopped taking journalists’ questions. Business News reporters began self-censoring, said the site’s editor in chief, Nizar Bahloul.

But there was something new this time, a toxicity poisoning social media.

Saied supporters tore into anyone who criticized the president and published personal information about political opponents. Facebook pages and bot accounts linked to the president’s circle have mounted coordinated smear campaigns against critics, said Zyna Mejri, the founder of Falso, a Tunisian fact-checking platform.

The president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Online, Saied supporters labeled Mosaïque journalists “corrupt.” The sense of siege escalated one night in February when security officers arrested the station’s director, Noureddine Boutar.

His journalists said they felt personally responsible: The charges centered on accusations of financial impropriety, but his lawyers said he was targeted for the station’s political coverage.

Days after the arrest, at a glum staff meeting, a lawyer delivered a message from the boss: Keep doing your jobs.

Judging by the audience numbers, independent commentary was good business.

Mosaïque remains No. 1. In a country of about 11 million people, more than a million listen daily to the “Midi Show,” one of the few programs anywhere in Tunisia to regularly discuss the country’s autocratic backsliding.

Haythem El Mekki of Mosaïque FM, second from left, chats with a colleague before ‘The Midi Show,” next to its host, Elyes Gharbi, second from right.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

When its host, Mr. Gharbi, and the commentator Haythem El Mekki, a “Midi” fixture, were interrogated by security services last month after criticizing police recruitment methods on air, some listeners showed up in solidarity outside where they were being questioned, the “Midi” journalists said.

“If we still have this big mass of people following us,” Mr. El Mekki said, “it’s proof of trust.”

But Mosaïque is not the opposition, Mr. Gharbi insists.

“We’re just saying how we think things are going every day,” and whether the authorities are improving Tunisians’ lives or not, he said recently.

At that time, the journalists were hopeful.

They could still face prosecution. But Mr. Boutar had just been ordered released after three months in prison. The staff greeted each other the next morning with “praise be to God” and “congratulations.”

Just before noon, Mr. Gharbi did a little dance before settling into the host’s chair.

“It’s great to be in the studio,” he said later, “and not in jail.”

A monument in his hometown depicting a handcart remembers Mohamed Bouazizi, the young stall-holder who began Tunisia’s revolution by setting himself on fire in December 2010.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times
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