A recording of the head of Tunisia's private TV station, Nessma, was leaked on April 17, detailing threats and intimidation against a civil society group fighting corruption in the country.
In the audio footage, the voice of Nabil Karoui, head of the influential TV channel and founding member of the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, can be heard ordering his staff to slander anti-corruption watchdog IWatch.
Nessma TV is closely linked to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of Nidaa Tounes.
"We should prepare a press conference focusing on IWatch," the voice is heard as saying. "We should prepare a defamation ad. We bring people, our own journalists who do investigation and all, and we say 'those are betraying the country', you understand, and they are agents' who are receiving money to sell their own country."
In the comments, translated into English, Karoui urges journalists to label IWatch "thieves," "traitors," and "liars" in the TV ads, calling for a smear campaign against the wife and family of the group's founder in order to whip up public hostility.
"Even if it's bogus, we make 45 minutes of defamation. More than that. Insult them, defame them," he says.
IWatch was founded after the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and is a prominent civil society organization fighting corruption and campaigning for transparency.
The group was instrumental in drafting whistleblower protection laws in February this year that were passed by the Tunisian parliament.
The NGO is a partner organisation of international NGO Transparency International, who says the leaked recordings appear part of an organised smear campaign aimed at "damaging the reputation of the organisation and its members," a statement said.
"These threats to intimidate IWatch and those associated with it are sickening and must be investigated fully," TI said.
"Its members are courageous and dedicated. They are working for a Tunisia that respects the rule of law and provides justice for all."
The battle between IWatch and Nessma TV highlights the challenges of rooting out corruption in Tunisia following decades of authoritarian, and nepotistic, rule under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Since establishing parliamentary democracy, key actors with business and political ties have continued to occupy large roles, especially in the media.
Nessma TV, which is well connected politically, first targeted the anti-corruption group IWatch in a defamation lawsuit last July after an investigative report by the group detailed systematic tax avoidance by Nessma's owners, the Karoui brothers.
IWatch recommended anti-tax evasion and fraud measures based on the report, calling on the Ministry of Finance to verify Nessma TV's tax status and ensure media transparency.
At that time, the TV station used a series of tactics to defame the group, according to the Washington Post, including broadcasting photos of IWatch members and their families.
IWatch's president, Achraf Aouadi, told the US daily that the attacks boosted the group's profile, but took a toll in legal fees and time. It also proved the extent to which economic cronyism still runs the country.
"The state is literally hijacked by an economic elite with its connections to the political elite," he told Wapo. "They’re trying to keep their privileges."
Karoui has denied the leaked recording is entirely authentic, and dismissed IWatch as "four kids," according to Wapo. He said that the incident will likely just blow over.
However, the leak led to demonstrations in the country's capital, Tunis, with protesters gathering outside the palace of justice to voice their discontent.
Meanwhile, several different Facebook pages hosting the recording received more than 100,000 views each, with many Tunisians changing their profile picture in solidarity with I Watch.
While the government did not respond with any concrete measures following threats against I Watch by Nessma TV last year, Tunisian media reported Tuesday that a judicial inquiry into the leaked recording has been launched.
Transparency International has also urged Tunisian authorities to investigate allegations of intimidation against the anti-corruption body, part of a wider process of acknowledging and protecting the work of civil society in the new democracy.
Copyright @ 2021 The New Arab.