Tunis, Tunisia - As Tunisia moves closer to legislative and presidential elections planned for this fall, its technocratic interim government faces a major challenge: How to balance security while protecting hard-fought post-revolution freedoms.
On July 16, an attack on Chaambi mountain killed 15 soldiers and wounded 18 others. In response to the Chaambi attack, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa created a "crisis cell" to help coordinate the government's security efforts.
Among the group's actions was the decision to close unlicensed media outlets which the government said had "turned into platforms for takfiris [Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy] and jihadis", as well as a number of mosques deemed to be inciting violence.
The prime minister's office also warned that "security and military institutions constitute a red line", pledging to prosecute "any denigrating person, group, party or institution".
The move drew mixed reactions from rights activists and media experts.
"[My organisation agrees] that the unusual security situation, at the moment, requires that the government protect its people and defend our national interests," Ahmed Rahmouni, president of the Tunisian Observatory for Judicial Independence, told Al Jazeera. "But the [current] counterterrorist operation undermines the fundamental freedoms won during the transitional period, and we cannot fight terrorism by violating human rights and international treaties."
We cannot fight terrorism by violating human rights and international treaties.
"We believe that the government made these decisions too hastily and that it gave the Ministry of the Interior substantial powers without accountability," he added.
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The idea that the government can take such decisions is particularly sensitive when viewed in the context of a political transition presided over by an unelected interim government.
Fahem Boukaddous, a member of the Tunisian Center for Press Freedom, described the government's decision to shut down the media outlets as "a threat to Tunisia's recent free speech advancements", made after the country's 2011 revolution toppled long-time Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Boukaddous told Al Jazeera that Tunisians should take a "courageous" stand against these measures. "This decision is unconstitutional, as such measures could only be taken by [the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA)]," he said.
HAICA is Tunisia's independent regulatory body established by a 2011 law to "guarantee the freedom and pluralism of audiovisual communication […] without any intervention from parties capable of influencing its members or activities".
Questions have been raised about HAICA's role in regulating such media outlets and whether the government followed appropriate protocol in making its decision. "We were not consulted by the government before the closures," HAICA President Nouri Lajmi told Al Jazeera.
When asked why the government failed to do so, Lajmi said: "You have to put the event in the context of rising terrorism in Tunisia."
"When some radio stations break the law, we take action," he added. "Nobody is above the law... Many media outlets began broadcasting illegally during the revolution, before HAICA began operating. When they do so, HAICA is there to regulate their legal status."
|Tunisians protested an attack on Chaambi mountain that killed 15 soldiers and injured 18 others in July [Reuters]
The body was examining at least 50 media cases, according to HAICA member Hichem Snoussi. "We decided not to rush the closure of these illegal media organisations," he told Al Jazeera. "Rather, we called on them to prepare papers and obtain licenses which commit them to legal requirements and moral principles."
"The government does not have the right to interfere in this domain," Snoussi added.
The decision singled out Nour FM and satellite channel Al-Insen for closure. "This decision is illegal, unfair, and arbitrary," Al-Insen journalist Said Jaziri told Al Jazeera. "We never had any problems before with the government. We interact directly with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, attend their seminars and conferences, and have hosts who are imams and decision makers in the ministry."
While Jaziri said the decision has yet to be implemented, and that the station was still broadcasting, Mofdi Mseddi, press attache for the prime ministry, denied that the decision had changed. "The closure order will be implemented by public prosecution," he said.
Despite opposition to the government's decision, most seem to agree that radio and television stations must adhere to certain standards.
"The freedoms of expression and the press are not absolute freedoms like all the others," Snoussi said. "Rather, they have rules and limits. Some of the media organisations in existence today have not respected these rules. We cannot allow them to practise chaotic acts in the name of democracy."
Segments of the Tunisian public agree. "If television channels are calling for jihad and promoting extremist thoughts, they should be closed," a 50-year-old Tunisian man, who gave his name as Bizerti, said. "They brainwash our youth."
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Tunisia's government also announced the "immediate closure of mosques located outside the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs", pending government appointments of new leaders. The government said that Salafi fighters use many of these mosques to encourage violence. Salafism is a conservative branch of Sunni Islam that adheres to a strict interpretation of religious texts.
We have 21 mosques outside of government control. Many of these were built after the revolution without a license. The closures were due to celebrations of our soldiers’ deaths [in the Chaambi attack].
"We have 21 mosques outside of government control," Mseddi, from the prime minister's office, told Al Jazeera. "Many of these were built after the revolution without a license. The closures were due to celebrations of our soldiers’ deaths [in the Chaambi attack]."
He added: "Mehdi Jomaa announced [on August 2] that procedures for hiring new imams and reopening the mosques will be expedited."
The mosque closures have received mixed reactions in Tunisia, with some supporting the government's efforts. "Mosques are good for worshipping God and reciting the Quran," 70-year-old Youssef Balti told Al Jazeera. "However, they should be closed when they are used to promote the messages of these false preachers who know nothing about Islam [and] raise Salafi flags."
Meanwhile, Ministry of Religious Affairs spokesperson Najat Hammami told Al Jazeera that five mosques had been allowed to reopen, with a sixth expected soon.
Ridha Belhaj, president of Hizb Attahrir, a Salafi party calling for the implementation of Islamic law, said the closures were an attempt to reassert control over a segment of the Tunisian population which has been able to act more freely in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.
"Some parties want to use terrorism to scare the people, saying it is an exceptional situation in order to control them again," Belhaj said. "One day, they ban some mosques. The next, they will ban certain religious books."
He added that the government could regulate some of the mosques, rather than shutting them down. "The government should instead be concerned with what these mosques need [to counter radicalism]."
Safa Ben Said, Imen Blioua, and Fanny Ohier contributed reporting.