On May 3, which marks World Press Freedom Day, authorities in Tunisia interrogated a senior journalist, Sami Ben Gharbia, for six hours. His crime? The organisation he leads had leaked information about a draft law that seeks amnesty for corrupt businessmen and old regime officials.
Since a popular uprising in January 2011 toppled the decades-old dictatorship of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the small North African country has made significant steps towards becoming a functional parliamentary democracy – a rarity in the region.
It even took the bold step of forming a Truth and Dignity Commission, charged with looking back into its ugly past – where political opponents were ostracised, tortured and killed, and sexual abuse of women and men were used systematically by the state – in a bid to bring the truth out into the open.
Those achievements are under threat, however, as the coalition government of current President Beji Caid Essebsi makes yet another attempt to introduce a law, the Economic Reconciliation Bill, that will allow the rich and influential accused of serious corruption or other major economic crimes a way back into Tunisian mainstream life.
Nawaat, which Gharbia co-founded in 2004 and was one of the leading dissident news outlets during the Ben Ali years, recently ran a story about how the government was planning to launch a massive public relations campaign to sway public opinion in favour of the proposed legislation. The story was based on information leaked from inside the presidential palace.
"The bill is radically opposed by the civil society," he told TRT World. "This is the third time the government is trying to push through the bill."
Introduced in 2015, the proponents of the amnesty bill have faced constant hurdles from human rights activists, opposition and journalists.
The government insists the proposed legislation helps bring back investment to a stagnant Tunisian economy by reinforcing confidence among investors who right now fear prosecution.
Amnesty is offered to businessmen and former regime officials who bring back money from their offshore accounts.
It’s also an attempt to restore confidence among government officials, many of whom are remnants of the previous regime. Yet it was the same officials against whom the people had revolted. There is very little explanation as to how the government plans to pacify the widespread dissatisfaction.
Too scared to be accused of corruption, bureaucrats have stopped taking responsibility for the development budget, much of which goes unutilised, exacerbating the economic problem, according to the government.
Gharbia sees that as hogwash.
"Not every businessman is corrupt. But what kind of signal are you giving to everyone else by handing amnesty to a few?"
The move will further widen the class divide, he says, one of the reasons that prompted the uprising six years ago. Growing inequality during the 1990s and 2000s, while a small elite enriched itself with impunity under the protection of Ben Ali’s police state.
"What about the people who can't pay their water or electricity bills? They are never let off the hook. So how is it fair to let go the big fish and go after average citizen?"
For many Tunisians, the draft law is a step back on the efforts to bring the corrupt officials to justice, he said.
Gharbia’s mistreatment happened days before the president and vice-president of of Tunisia’s election commission – an institution created in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution which has played a critical role in the country’s democratic transition – resigned along with another top official, citing difficulties in performing his duties.
Chafik Sarsar’s departure on May 9, months before the crucial local elections, has raised questions about direction of the country. Sarsar warned that the "fundamentals of [Tunisia’s] democracy" are threatened, hinting at behind-the-scenes efforts to undermine future free and fair elections.
"It could disrupt the organisation of the next municipal elections," he warned.
Shooting the messenger
The internet and online activists played a crucial role in the uprising in Tunisia, where until 2011 a free press was effectively nonexistent. Nawaat, a blog back then, was at the forefront.
While news organisations have come a long way and Reporters Without Borders places Tunisia among the more press-tolerant countries in the region, Gharbia’s interrogation indicates a worrying trend.
"They asked me to reveal our source and information about the journalist who worked on the story. When I refused, they forced me to give them names of everyone in the company – from the cleaning lady to management level employees."
On the surface, Tunisia’s 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and carries articles that protect whistle-blowers and journalists' sources.
However, Gharbia says that having better press freedoms than other countries in the Middle East and North Africa mustn’t be seen as an achievement, and that the country is capable of more.
"To me, what’s important is how we guarantee human rights and how we protect sources of journalists. And it’s becoming a daily battle in Tunisia."
Local journalists complain that hard-won press freedoms have been curtailed since 2015, when terrorist attacks killed 60 people and a state of emergency was imposed.
A few weeks back, presidential officials tried to block Ridha Bel Hadj, a government opponent, from giving interview to a private TV channel.
Corruption v Human Rights Abuse?
President Essebsi and others who back the bill say it’s a necessary evil to revive the economy, even if it means compromising with the corrupt officials of the former brutal regime.
Experts say this kind of trade-off, experimented with by countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, hasn’t worked.
David Tolbert, the president of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, an NGO which works in countries moving from dictatorships to democracies, says accountability of corrupt officials is closely linked to human rights violators.
"In most cases, corrupt regimes are brutal because they need force and threats in order to steal and conceal their plunder of public funds, as well as public and private land and other assets," he wrote in a 2015 article.
For Gharbia, the notion that the revolution was more about human rights abuse than corruption is anathema.
"The revolution was all about the socio-economic fight."