A businessman’s attempts to smear an NGO brings corruption into focus for Tunisa, where corruption remains a perennial problem.
The only democracy in the Arab world is demonstrating once again that changing the status quo comes only through a series of long-lasting battles. This time the confrontation sees an anti-corruption NGO in opposition to one of the country’s most influential businessmen, Nabil Karoui, owner of the strongest media group in Tunisia.
Early one Monday morning in April, the Tunisian public’s attention was directed to leaked videos of the media tycoon and founder of the Nessma TV station. The third leaked recording of Karoui, a former executive board member of Nida Tounes (the majority party in Tunisia), was massively shared on all social media platforms.
In the recording from July 2016, we hear Karoui in a meeting with Nessma TV journalists, instructing them to develop a smear campaign targeting I Watch, an anti-corruption NGO. We hear him explicitly giving orders to prepare ads depicting it as a group of traitors and spies at the service of a foreign agenda.
“We should prepare a press conference focusing on I Watch. We should prepare a defamation ad. We bring people, our own journalists who do investigations, and we say, ‘Those are betraying the country, they are agents who are receiving money to sell their own country,’” says Karoui in a translation of the recording. “Now we should do a solidarity pool against I Watch. We put all of this in a television ad and we say ‘Dangerous Facts about I Watch’. Even if it’s a fake, we make 45 minutes of defamation, let’s do that.”
I Watch is the official branch of Transparency international in Tunisia, created after the 2011 revolution and led by young people, the same Tunisian youth who were in the frontlines of the movements protesting for regime change. Since then, they have placed themselves in the vanguard of the anti-corruption battle, in constant confrontation with some of the most influential actors in the country.
The reason for this attempted character assassination can be found in an article published on 10 July 2016 on I Watch’s website. It reveals a complex web of companies in Luxembourg and Dubai owned by Karoui and his associates, and money transfers through the UAE, leading to suspicion of tax evasion by Karoui in Tunisia. Along with a set of policy recommendations, the I Watch report called for the relevant authorities to use all legal means, including search and confiscation of documents, to verify the tax status of Nessma.
A few weeks after I Watch published its investigation, the Karoui-owned TV channel began featuring journalists discrediting the NGO through personal attacks, and accusations of betrayal and affiliation to foreign groups plotting against Tunisia. The leaked recording confirms that the campaign of denigration was premeditated.
Once the recording leaked, the official position of Nessma’s officials was confusing. Nabil Karoui himself said, “This is not my voice,” while two journalists from the television channel implicitly confirmed the veracity of the recording. One said, “His words were taken out of context”, and another said, “This was just the words of an angry man.”
On the other side, Achref Aouadi, founder and President of I Watch, clarified the position of his NGO. “We are inviting the state to take the appropriate investigation measures in the case of Nessma, and we trust the judicial institutions to prove once again the supremacy of the rule of law in our democracy,” he told zenith. “We have submitted more than 700 documents proving the alleged tax evasion to the finance investigative commission, and we will move on to other cases of corruption, especially those where individuals believe they can have total impunity from the rule of law. We will keep mobilising all the elements of our society to fight this scourge.”
The reaction of the authorities came rapidly. On April 18, Aouadi met with Mehdi Ben Gharbia, Minister of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights, who guaranteed him the state executive body’s commitment to protection of freedom of association and expression. In parliament, MP Jamila Kesikisi expressed her support for efforts by the country’s civil society and her indignation about practices reminiscent of the dictatorship era. Members of I Watch were invited to a hearing about the framework of an investigation into the alleged corruption and tax evasion.
These events helped to inflame public opinion, already sceptical of the fiscal manoeuvres of well-heeled Tunisians. On May 15, thousands of people protested on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the same street where Tunisians gathered to oust the dictator Ben Ali. The protesters wanted to demonstrate that Tunisians will not accept the reconciliation bill as proposed by President Beji Caid Esebsi. At least 22 national and international NGOs joined a civil society coalition against this bill and expressed their fears that any process parallel to the main transitional justice effort might undermine the fragile democratic transition.