Tunisian journalist sentenced to 6 months in prison for insulting an official

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A judge in Tunisia sentenced a journalist and political commentator to six months in prison in the country's latest assault on members of the media who criticize the government.

Mohamed Boughalleb, who had been charged with insulting a public official, was sentenced Wednesday and will remain behind bars, where he has been since his arrest last month after an official lodged a complaint against him.

The official alleged he was harmed by Boughalleb's commentary linking him to corruption and misuse of public funds.

The complaint from a member of Tunisia's Ministry of Religious Affairs came after Boughalleb on Facebook questioned trips abroad that the civil servant made with the minister and called them a “waste of public funds.”

He was subsequently charged with violating defamation laws in Tunisia's penal and telecommunications code.

Lawyers for Boughalleb, 60, denounced the sentence as “an assault on freedom of expression” and raised questions about its political nature. He joined a chorus of Tunisians who have called into question the government's pursuit of its critics as President Kais Saied prepares to compete for a second term leading the North African country.

Authorities have increasingly targeted and arrested journalists this year and about 20 are now facing similar charges, Ziad Dabbar, the president of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, said.

To sentence a well-known radio and television commentator like Boughalleb constitutes “another attempt to silence free voices and prevent journalists from doing their job," Dabbar said.

Journalists critical of the government are one of many groups that have seen their civil liberties restricted in Tunisia. More than 20 activists and politicians critical of Saied have been behind bars for more than a year, charged with plotting against state security in cases their advocates have denounced as politicized.

The pursuit of journalists, cartoonists and political opponents comes almost five years after Saied won the presidency on an anti-corruption platform and months before he's expected to seek a second term in a yet-to-be-scheduled election.

After taking office, Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament, rewrote the constitution to consolidate his own power and curtailed the independence of a judiciary that has since ramped up its pursuit of his critics and opponents.