TUNIS – A host of international NGOs issued statements on Friday urging Tunisian security forces to show restraint in the mass anti-austerity protests that continue packing the streets of downtown Tunis, amid additional concerns that press freedom was being stifled in the North African country.
Human rights organization Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which advocates freedom of the press and the international protection of journalists, highlighted concerning reports of police brutality and arbitrary arrests targeting reporters.
“The Tunisian authorities must prioritize the safety of peaceful protesters and ensure that security forces only use force where absolutely necessary and proportionate, and to protect the rights of others,” Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Heba Morayef, said in a statement.
The statement added that police in Tunisia appeared to be using arrests as an intimidation technique.
Morayef spoke of the death of one protester in the city of Tebourba, located 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Tunis, urging that if police were found responsible for the fatality, they should be brought to justice.
Eyewitnesses said that Khomsi el-Yerfeni’s death resulted from him being run over twice by a police vehicle, but the country’s interior ministry claimed he had died from tear gas inhalation, exacerbated by a chronic lung condition.
RSF shared reports of journalists being interrogated by police, which it claimed was a breach of press freedoms.
One reporter, Mathieu Galtier, working for the French newspaper Liberation, was ordered to a police station where he said officers pressed him to give over the details of his contacts in Terbourba, while another, Nadim Bouamoud, of the Tunisia Review, had her cell phone confiscated by police to prevent her from sharing videos.
An epa photographer on the ground documented large crowds of demonstrators, representing all ages, gathered in central Tunis and engaging in a stand-off with police.
Some were brandishing yellow cards, borrowing on soccer symbolism to offer a warning to the government.
Tunis has been the scene of low-scale demonstrations over the course of the last year but the rallies intensified and became restive at the onset of 2018, when the government imposed austerity measures to meet terms set by International Monetary Fund creditors, who have urged the Tunisian executive to balance the books on an estimated $2.9-billion loan.
Friday marked the fourth consecutive day of protests, in which time some 800 people have been arrested, according to the interior minister.