Tunisian journalists protest over new head of state news agency

Protesting journalists say the new chief executive, Kamel Ben Younes, is too close to the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament

  

TUNIS- Tunisian police on Tuesday clashed with journalists at the state news agency demonstrating against a new chief executive whose appointment they see as an attempt to undermine editorial independence.

Dozens of protesting journalists had gathered in front of Tunis Afrique Presse's (TAP) headquarters to try to stop Kamel Ben Younes from entering, but police later forced a way in.

"TAP is free and police must go," the journalists chanted.

Protesting journalists say Ben Younes is too close to the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament. They accuse him of backing moves to control the press before the 2011 revolution brought democracy.

He has denied both charges, saying he is a political independent and pointing to his past work as a journalist with several outlets, including the BBC.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, whose government needs Ennahda's parliamentary backing to survive, has described the appointment of Ben Younes as a purely administrative move and in no way an effort to interfere with TAP's editorial stance.

Before the revolution, TAP was an arm of state propaganda based entirely on official sources. But it has become a rare Arab news agency with editorial independence, often covering stories that criticise the government.

During protests in January, it reported on demonstrations as they took place and on accusations of police brutality. It has also reported on the friction between Mechichi, Ennahda and President Kais Saied.

"This appointment indicates an unbridled desire to lay hands on the agency and make it a governmental and partisan propaganda trumpet, and we will not accept it," said Mounir Souissi, a TAP journalist at the protest.

The Journalists' Syndicate, part of Tunisia's labour unions movement, has called for TAP reporters to hold their first-ever strike on April 22 if the government does not withdraw Ben Younes.

Mechichi and Ben Younes have said they will not back down.

"Everyone knows I have been independent in my professional career for 35 years, and the goal of my appointment is to reform the agency that suffers from many administrative and financial problems", Ben Younes told Reuters.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara, editing by Angus McDowall, Larry King and Nick Macfie) ((tarek.amara@thomsonreuters.com;))

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