Tunisian journalist Mohamed Boughaleb jailed for six months in defamation case

Prominent Tunisian journalist Mohamed Boughaleb has been sentenced to six months in prison after being convicted of defaming a civil servant.

The Tunisian Court of First Instance passed its verdict on Wednesday evening, Nafie Al Araibi, a member of Boughaleb’s defence team, said in a statement to the Tunisia Africa Agency.

Boughaleb, a known critic of President Kais Saied, was detained by a cybercrime unit a month ago after a complaint was filed by a civil servant.

The public official, who works for the Tunisian Ministry of Religious Affairs, accused Boughaleb of “causing damage to her reputation”.

Boughaleb had claimed in posts on social media and to a private radio station that overseas trips by the official were a form of “corruption and waste of public resources”.

The journalist, who suffers from diabetes and heart issues, did not attend the first hearing last week but was present on Wednesday.

Zied Dabbar, president of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, said the case was “the latest attempt to intimidate and muzzle journalists by exploiting the apparatus of the state”.

The convicted journalist’s brother, Jamal Eddine Boughaleb, told Reuters: “It is a black day for the judiciary and freedom of the press. It is a message to journalists: ‘be silent or your place is in prison’”.

The syndicate this month demanded the immediate release of Boughaleb, due to his ill health.

His conviction reinforces activists’ fears that authorities are increasingly restricting freedom ahead of presidential elections expected this year.

In January, journalist and media pundit Zied El Heni was released after being held for almost a week after criticising the Tunisian Minister of Commerce, Kalthoum Ben Rejeb, on a radio show.

tunisian journalist mohamed boughaleb jailed for six months in defamation case

A protest defending press freedom takes place in Tunis. EPA

His comments prompted Tunis prosecutors to order his arrest and prosecution under a law that punishes “the use of telecommunications networks to harm or insult others”.

In September 2022, Mr Saied issued Decree 54 to prevent the spreading information that is deemed false online, with prison terms of up to 10 years for offenders.

Anyone found to have used information networks to “promote [or] publish … false news” to harm public security or national defence could face a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($15,600).

The jail term can be doubled if the victim is a public official.

Mr Saied is seized extra powers in 2021 when he shut down the elected Parliament and moved to rule by decree before assuming authority over the judiciary.

The President, who came to power in 2019 in free elections, has insisted he will not become a dictator.

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