CHOKRI CHIHI, exiled journalist: “In Tunisia, it’s a nightmare”

Born in Tunis (Tunisia) on April 29, 1983, Chokri Chihi grew up with his four brothers in a modest family. Although he studied a master’s degree in international private law at the University of Tunis in 2006, journalism soon became an obvious choice for Chokri: “Ever since I was little, I’ve been a talker, I talk a lot, I take part in debates. I studied law, I could have been a lawyer, but journalism came naturally to me”.

He began his career as a journalist in 2007, working for Akhbar Joumhouria, a well-known weekly in Tunisia. Chokri publishes articles on police brutality and corruption in Tunisian soccer clubs, which he strongly condemns. Passionate about sports, documentaries and news, he trained in investigative journalism, sports journalism and war journalism.

Since 2012, Chokri has also been editor-in-chief of the electronic newspaper (Arabic version). He also specialized in documentary writing and creation at Al Jazeera in 2014, where he worked as an investigative journalist and documentary production assistant until 2018.

A committed journalist in the crosshairs of the authorities

In 2011, the “Jasmine Revolution” exploded in Tunisia. While he took part in the demonstrations demanding the fall of the regime as a citizen, Chokri also covered the events as a journalist.

The police violently attack demonstrators and political opponents. Chokri condemns these acts, calling for democracy. He proudly affirms that he is, and always has been, a fervent defender of freedom of expression, democracy and human rights.

Chokri Chihi during a demonstration in favor of freedom of expression in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian union “No to attacks against journalists” in 2018.

But the police didn’t appreciate the journalist’s work. He became the target of threats, provocations, harassment, assaults and kidnappings by the Tunisian police.

This marked the start of a long series of relentless attacks that would last for years, until his departure in 2022.

In 2018, Chokri’s career took a new turn. The case of Omar Laabidi, a 19-year-old Tunisian who drowned after a soccer match, prompted him to flee his country, where he was no longer safe.

“On April 1, 2018, I was covering a soccer match when a friend called to tell me that a young supporter had drowned in the river near the stadium. I went to the scene, where several police officers were present. They explained that the young man had drowned following a fight between supporters of rival clubs, and that they were looking for the missing body. I decided to investigate, and interviewed and recorded the account of a witness, only to discover that the police had chased the young man with truncheons before drowning him, as he pleaded for help. I sent the recording to a TV station, and the story became public. The police wanted me dead. I was assaulted, beaten, slapped and threatened with death by the police. I was kidnapped and severely beaten.

The Omar Laabidi case, which has become emblematic of police impunity, has shocked public opinion and prompted international reaction. The 12 police officers involved in the case were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for manslaughter in November 2022, no less than four years after the young man’s murder.

In power since 2019, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed leaves little room for press freedom. Under pressure from the government, many journalists censor themselves to avoid the wrath of the authorities.

On July 25, 2021, Kaïs Saïed orchestrated a coup d’état, which Chokri was quick to criticize. “There is no freedom of the press in Tunisia; arrests and imprisonment of journalists, political opponents and human rights activists have followed one another since 2021. Trials are held before military courts. Dissidents who criticize Kaïs Saïed are seen as traitors and conspirators. In Tunisia, it’s a nightmare”.

2022, one year too many

Since 2018, Chokri has suffered avalanches of threats and attacks. Yet he continues to express his opposition to the current government. His criticism has led to an intensification of police violence against him.

Chokri Chihi during a police assault in a press box at Radès stadium in 2022. ©Haikel Hamima

He filed several complaints of death threats and assaults, but to no avail, as the police formed a giant coalition against Chokri, who was at his wits’ end.

“On April 23, 2022, as I was leaving a gymnasium in which a championship handball final was taking place, four individuals in police uniforms kidnapped me and violently beat me into an armored truck. They hit me in the face and I screamed, but nobody could hear me. They tried to find excuses to take me to court and put me behind bars. They accused me of insulting the officers, then tried to plant drugs on me. When they released me, it was all too much. I’d gotten used to the threats, the provocations and the slaps. But the violence had gone up a notch, a notch I couldn’t take any more. I was living in fear, suffering from anxiety and sleep disorders, and I consulted psychiatrists. The police, for their part, were delighted to know that I was in a pitiful state. They sent me messages laughing: “Next time, we’ll rape you and shoot you in the head”. I resigned, sold my belongings and left my country for my own safety. I flew to France. After many long months of administrative procedures, I finally joined the Maison des Journalistes,” explains Chokri, with a look of sadness in his eyes.

A new beginning in France

Now a member of the House of Journalists since May 2023, Chokri is gradually regaining confidence in the future, having lost all hope in Tunisia. Now that he’s in France, Chokri continues his work as a journalist. Among other things, he publishes articles for (Arabic version), takes part in demonstrations for democracy, and is a member of the Comité pour le respect des libertés et des droits de l’Homme en Tunisie (CRLDHT).

Chokri Chihi during a demonstration at Place de la République (Paris) in May 2023.

But even outside the country, he continues to receive threats: “I’m afraid to go back to Tunisia. The police know I’m in France, they’ve managed to contact me on my phone. They send me threatening messages, telling me they’re going to find me and bury me here in France. The police officers who were convicted in the Omar Laabidi case won’t leave me alone. I’m not the first journalist to have to flee Tunisia to avoid death”.

Far from giving up, Chokri has many projects in mind, including the creation of his own YouTube channel. He wishes to give a voice to North African exiles and political opponents who have found refuge in France.

By Andrea Petitjean