TV boss Sami Fehri, an associate of the ousted president’s family, has turned himself into an unlikely champion of press freedom and victim of the Islamist-led government in the new Tunisia.
Fehri insists the judiciary is seeking his detention in retaliation for the satirical puppet show broadcast by his Ettounsiya TV channel that was abruptly pulled last week because of “pressures” from the ruling Islamist party Ennahda.
“A huge machine has crushed us to death,” he told the Express FM radio station last week, saying the government had “crossed every red line.”
Fehri’s lawyer, Sonia Dahmani, said her client was still free on Monday, with the police and the accused yet to be formally notified of his arrest warrant.
The authorities have sharply criticized the TV program.
But they say its transmission is unrelated to the legal process dogging Fehri, a former business partner of Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Canada.
Media muzzling or justice
The two men have been named in a corruption case targeting their production company Cactus and state television.
The official TAP news agency said Fehri was being charged with the “illegal use of Tunisian state television resources” during the Ben Ali era.
And an influential advisor to the prime minister, Lotfi Zitoune, charges Fehri is a “criminal” and “a symbol of the former regime, implicated in corruption, who should return the considerable sums of money that he owes to the state.”
But the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) is not convinced.
“The SNJT insists on opening the corruption files in the information sector and charging those implicated, but it is surprised that the arrest warrant (against Fehri) coincides” with the move to shut down a TV show that poked fun at Tunisian politics, the union said.
“Using the judiciary and government intervention to put pressure on the media is a blow to freedom of expression” in Tunisia, it added.
Numerous journalists have already accused the authorities of seeking to manipulate the media in other ways, including by appointing new directors to head public media groups without consulting their editorial staff.
Speaking on Sunday, Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem did little to assuage concerns.
“The government is currently working to remove from political life the symbols of the former regime and is engaged in sanitizing the political, media and administrative landscape,” Abdessalem said.
He added that the government was not trying “to control the media, but at the same time it will not allow certain media to become opposition forums used to attack the government.”
The Tunisian press is now asking whether Fehri has become a victim of the post-revolution era.
“Media muzzled or justice following its course?” ran the headline of Tunis Hebdo on Monday, with the weekly publication pointing out that of the 18 people accused in the corruption case, only Fehri was being served with an arrest warrant.
“For the time being, the others remain free,” it added.
Daily publication La Presse in an editorial on Monday said the case provided an opportunity “to bring out into the open the files on embezzlement under the former regime,” but suggested its timing put the authorities in an awkward position.
“It is the delay to starting the judicial process ... that has led to this judicial-political-media mix-up,” the paper added.
“A large section of public opinion currently regards (this case) as an attempt to remove an activist campaigning for freedom of expression,” La Presse said, while urging people not to forget Fehri’s “original sin.”