The day after President Kais Saied moved to assume executive control over Tunisia, security forces raided Al-Jazeera’s bureau in the capital, Tunis.
More than a week later, the offices — along with the broadcaster’s equipment — remain locked off, leaving its journalists to work remotely, using smartphones, Lotfi Hajji, Al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Tunis, told VOA.
"This has disrupted our work greatly," said Hajji. "The equipment is seized inside the office, and there are colleagues who work from their homes sending news via their phones and some of the correspondents go on air via Skype only."
Hajji and his colleagues tried to retrieve the equipment, but to no avail, he said.
The raid took place on the morning of July 26, just as the country was thrown into a political turmoil that has analysts raising questions about the longevity of its fragile democracy.
Tunisia has long been regarded as a rare Arab Spring success story. In many cases, the pro-democracy movements and protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago led to prolonged instability or war, like in Syria or Yemen, or authoritarian rule, like in Egypt.
By comparison, Tunisia has a comparatively good record. It ranks 73rd out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, on the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and is labeled “free” on the annual Freedom House global report. However, both organizations cite pressures and harassment of media.
Saied has said he is acting within his constitutional powers to invoke a national emergency in response to the pandemic and allegations of poor governance. He dismissed the prime minister, suspended the country's legislature, stripped lawmakers of immunity and declared himself the executive leader.
The move comes as the country's economy struggles to recover from a new wave of coronavirus cases and after mass protests in several cities over unemployment and the pandemic. Tunisia has been hit with a significant decline in revenue usually generated from tourism.
Experts say it is unclear if emergency measures will be lifted within 30 days, as mandated by the constitution.
Critical of exodus
On Sunday, Saied strolled on the iconic Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis in an apparent signal that the country was returning to normalcy and called a recent exodus to Europe by a number of younger Tunisians a conspiracy to undermine the country.
"They give them money so that they leave. Those people exploit misery and want a remake of what happened in 2011. They are hurting Tunisia's relations with Italy, Europe and other countries," he said in a video released by his office, The Associated Press reported.
The president did not address his plans or comment on the seizure of Al-Jazeera's office.
Hajji told VOA that the security forces did not have a court order when they entered the media outlet’s building.
Al-Jazeera has called the raid by nearly two dozen officers an "attack on press freedom” and a “troubling escalation.”
In a statement, the Qatar-based network said it feared the raid “will impede fair and objective coverage of unfolding events in the country."
The broadcaster added that security officers did not give a reason for the raid and said only that they were following orders.
The Qatar-funded broadcaster has been blocked or banned in other Middle East countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, often during tensions between those countries and Doha.
Qatar, along with Turkey, has expressed concern about Saied’s actions, but the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt offered tacit support.
No photography licenses
With their bureau closed, Al-Jazeera staff have not been able to renew their photography licenses. In Tunisia, foreign media outlets must renew permits every month.
Without licenses, Hajji said, "We have no right to take photographs in the street."
Al-Jazeera is not the only foreign outlet to run into issues since Saied dissolved the government. Journalists on assignment for The New York Times were briefly detained last week before being summoned by the president.
In an account published Sunday, correspondent Vivian Yee said that after being stopped by police, she and her colleagues were called to the presidential palace where Saied spoke at length.
"I came to report on the potential collapse of Tunisia's democracy and was briefly detained,” Yee said later on Twitter. “Then I got a lecture on the U.S. Constitution from the president of Tunisia, who vowed to preserve press freedoms but didn't allow me to ask a single question.”
Washington has been outspoken about "returning" Tunisia to its democratic path.
"I had a long conversation with the [Tunisian] president and urged him to make sure that Tunisia returns to the democratic path as quickly as possible. We also have concerns with any efforts to repress the voices of the Tunisian people, including the media, which we've seen some reports of in recent days," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview with Al-Jazeera last week.
Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Western democracies should pressure Tunisia to restore civilian rule.
"Over the past week, I have been pleased to see additional, stronger language from both Secretary Blinken and Jake Sullivan making clear that the United States is committed to helping Tunisia," she told VOA.
Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, had an hourlong call with Saied on Saturday, urging him to form a new government "rapidly," according to a White House statement.
Carnegie fellow Yerkes added that the attacks on free expression were of concern.
“The Al-Jazeera event is, of course, troubling. But reading Vivian Yee's account of her and her colleagues’ interaction with Saied is also troubling – the way he is trying to instrumentalize the local and foreign media. This is straight out of the dictator's playbook," she told VOA.
Al-Jazeera has 23 employees, including several journalists who cover the country’s politics and economy for the network’s TV and website.
The block on its studio could have broad consequences for Al-Jazeera’s audiences and is a backward step for Tunisia, Hajji said.
“Over the past 10 years, Tunisia has experienced a period of freedoms and an attempt to establish an independent judiciary and implement rule of law, but this wants to take us back to square one, the square of monitoring and censoring the work of the media,” Hajji told VOA.
This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.