The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Tunisia, activists finally catch a break against a powerful tycoon

The president of I Watch Tunisia, Achraf Aouadi, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)

Fadil Aliriza is an independent researcher and journalist currently based in Tunis.

Six years after the start of the Arab Spring, Tunisia continues to cling to its precarious status as the Arab world’s sole parliamentary democracy. This week, however, a battle between a politically well-connected TV station and a group of anti-corruption activists is spotlighting a fundamental question: Who really controls the Tunisian state, citizens or tycoons?

Early Monday morning, someone leaked a recording of the voice of Nabil Karoui, the head of the influential private TV station Nessma and self-proclaimed “founding member” of the ruling Nidaa Tounes Party. In the recording, Karoui’s voice is heard ordering his journalists to defame the anti-corruption group I Watch by describing its members as traitors and spies. He also urges them to smear the fiancée of one of the group’s founders as well as her family and friends.

“Even if it’s bogus, we make 45 minutes of defamation. More than that. Insult them, defame them,” the voice in the recording is heard saying. “We’ll do a TV ad with the defamation, with their names. You see his female friend? Her face. His fiancée? What is her relationship with the traitors? … We’ll send someone to her house. We’ll send Amine to her house. ‘Hello brother, are you the father of this girl? Do you know that your daughter is engaged with this guy? And he is a traitor and a spy for the U.S. and takes money.’” (A rough English translation is available here).

I Watch is one of the most prominent Tunisian nongovernmental organizations founded in the new atmosphere of freedom of association and freedom of speech that blossomed after the 2011 revolution. Before that, Tunisia had experienced decades of authoritarian rule by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his family and a small group of cronies. But corruption didn’t end with the departure of the dictator, and since then old and new players with ties to business, politics and the media have continued to play big roles. Given that I Watch focused on fighting corruption and campaigning for transparency, it was inevitable that the group would run into problems.

Karoui denies that the leaked recording is entirely authentic. He suggests that it’s a selectively edited mixture of various recordings which may have been made with recording devices planted in his home and office (a claim apparently contradicted by members of his own staff). But a series of reports that his TV station ran in July 2016 used exactly the same tactics outlined in the recording, broadcasting photos of I Watch members and their relatives. The negative attention boosted the group’s profile, says I Watch President Achraf Aouadi, but also took a heavy toll on its resources both in terms of time and legal fees.

“When … someone is talking about your girlfriend, you want to beat the hell out of him,” says Aouadi. “But this is not how society should act, how citizens should act, this is not how a country should treat its own citizens. We’re not in a jungle.”

So why would of the country’s top TV channels be focusing so much attention on a small non-profit, in a campaign apparently directed by someone who was reportedly touted as a recent candidate for prime minister? The most likely reason: Nessma launched its campaign against I Watch the same month the group published an investigation into alleged tax evasion by the company. The I Watch researchers, working from what they say were publicly available financial documents, mapped out a web of apparent shell companies and offshore tax havens linked to Nessma. (Contacted for comment, Karoui took issue with this version, saying that the activists worked with documents leaked “illegally” from his companies.) I Watch then made several recommendations to different Tunisian state institutions, suggesting that they update laws and regulations, investigate the tax status of Nessma, and work to enhance transparency in the media sector.

The government failed to react in any meaningful way, but things could turn out differently this time. The leak seems to have hit a nerve. Within 48 hours, at least two different Facebook-hosted pages featuring the recording each hit more than 100,000 views. Many Tunisians changed their Facebook photos to one with a digital banner overlay announcing solidarity with I Watch. Thousands awarded I Watch’s Facebook page with five stars to show their support, and dozens of activist groups released declarations of support. Transparency International, which is partnered with I Watch, issued a statement condemning “the threats made against its partner in Tunisia” and calling for the Tunisian government to investigate the “smear campaign.” Even some political parties condemned the leak and its contents as an attack on civil society.

Mohamed Dhia Hammami, an investigative journalist who has worked on corruption issues in Tunisia, says he sees the affair between I Watch and Nessma as part of a bigger fight against the “mafia circles that dominate the state.”

“Almost everyone knows they’re a mafia,” says Hammami. “These leaks are confirming what people thought. This proves that people are not only involved in corruption as individuals but working as networks that are manipulating public opinion, influencing the political process and involved in the private sector.”

I Watch’s Aouadi doesn’t mince words, calling Nessma a “criminal organization.” “The state is literally hijacked by an economic elite with its connections to the political elite,” he says. “They’re trying to keep their privileges.”

Karoui dismisses I Watch as “four kids” and says the whole affair will blow over in a few days.

“People will forget about it in two days, but the law won’t,” counters Aouadi.

On Tuesday, the state’s general prosecutor reportedly launched a judicial inquiry into the content of the leaked recording. And in a morning Facebook post on Tuesday, Aouadi announced that he had received a call from an employee with the financial crimes section of one of the nation’s top courts. The official invited the I Watch head to the court’s offices to hear his input on the tax evasion case of Nessma.

Aouadi couldn’t help himself. “I swear to God,” he told the official, “I’ve been waiting for years for you to call me.”