I first met Lotfi Hajji some 15 years ago, after Tunisian authorities under President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had refused a request by Al Jazeera, the Qatar-funded pan-Arab television station, to accredit the Tunisian journalist as their local correspondent. Hajji at the time was active in the Tunisian Human Rights League and had co-founded the country’s first independent journalist union. Following Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, it gratified me finally to see Hajji on screen, finishing his reports with, “Lotfi Hajji, Al Jazeera, Tunis,” his seven-year wait for accreditation finally over. On July 25, 2021, Tunisia’s current president, Kais Saied, suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and seized extraordinary powers.
The next day, security forces evicted Al Jazeera’s staff from their Tunis bureau and confiscated their equipment. As police blocked access to their premises, Al Jazeera set up a makeshift studio in the front yard of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists. Denied authorization to go out and film, the station has been airing borrowed footage alongside Hajji doing a stand-up each day in that yard. Saied’s rights record might be a far cry from Ben Ali’s industrial-scale muzzling, imprisonment, and torture of opponents, but the arbitrariness of the abuses is similar. “No one in authority has given us any justification for closing our office,” Hajji told me. “There is no court decision. No official will tell us what we have done wrong, how long it will last, or to whom we can appeal.” Arbitrary rights violations since July have been piling up. Opposition and other political figures have been placed under house arrest and business people been banned from travel without being formally charged. Critics of the president have been referred to military courts for prosecution.
The Tunisian television station Nessma and the radio station Al-Quran al-Kareem, both of them critical of the president, were taken off the air on October 11, over alleged licensing issues. By keeping parliament shut, effectively suspending the 2014 constitution on September 22, and hobbling independent media like Al Jazeera, Saied has eroded critical checks and balances that Tunisians have erected since 2011 to bar a return to authoritarian rule. Though reduced to reporting from a front yard, Lotfi Hajji remains on the air. For now.
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