2 journalists in detention in Tunisia as authorities launch wave of arrests against critics

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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Two journalists were kept under detention in Tunisia on Wednesday, following a raft of arrests targeting government critics including lawyers and the press that has drawn concern from the country's international allies.

Authorities in the north African country this week unleashed a new campaign of repression against perceived opponents of President Kais Saied 's government. Migration activist Saadia Mosbah, France 24 cameraman Hamdi Tlili and lawyer Sonia Dahmani were among those detained or arrested in recent days.

Tlili was subsequently released without being charged, according to the North Africa Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

On Wednesday, radio journalist Borhen Bsaies and opinion columnist Mourad Zeghidi were kept under pre-trial detention four days after they were apprehended. They were accused of violating a cybercrime law barring fake news and undermining state security.

Bsaies's attorney Nizar Ayed told The Associated Press that his client was questioned for five hours about his Facebook posts and political views but did not offer clear evidence that he had violated the law or made remarks targeting the president.

Criticism of Tunisia's president is often used as a reason for officials to charge people with undermining state security.

Khaled Drareni, Reporters Without Borders’ North Africa representative, called the arrests “a frontal attack on press freedom.” In a statement he called for “an end to this serious obstruction that signals the tougher line being taken by an increasingly authoritarian government.”

Political arrests have grown increasingly common since President Kais Saied took power five years ago but the frequency of developments this week sparked renewed fear in Tunisia and alarmed the country’s international allies.

The European Union, Tunisia’s top trade partner, on Tuesday issued a rare rebuke of Tunisian authorities, calling the arrests worrisome.

“Freedoms of expression and association, as well as the independence of the judiciary, are guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution and constitute the basis of our partnership,” its spokesperson said in a statement.

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters that the U.S. was engaging Tunisia about the arrests, particularly those of attorneys.

“This kind of action is inconsistent with what we think are universal rights that are explicitly guaranteed in the Tunisian constitution, and we’ve been clear about that at all levels,” he said.

Tunisia is a key ally for the U.S. and the EU on issues ranging from security to migration in the Mediterranean.

The arrests were the latest made under a controversial cybercrime law called Decree 54 that authorities have used to pursue prominent political opponents since 2022.. A growing chorus of groups, including the country’s largest labor union and its affiliate that represents journalists, condemned the law and the arrests.

The General Union of Journalists on Tuesday said the law was being used to stifle freedom of expression and called it “a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of journalists.”

They said that the two journalists were at risk of being fined and facing five years behind bars if found guilty in court next week.

The arrests mark a continuation of Saied’s tumultuous first term in office, months ahead of a yet-to-be scheduled presidential election expected this fall. Leading opposition parties are expected to boycott the contest.