Tunisian broadcaster Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were arrested on May 12, 204 under a law punishing "spreading false news." / Photo: Getty Images

Two prominent Tunisian TV hosts detained for "spreading false news" said on Wednesday at the start of their trial that they were doing their jobs when they made statements deemed critical by the authorities.

Broadcaster Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were arrested on May 12 under a law punishing "spreading false news" after remarks they had made online and in the media, according to lawyers.

"My job as a political analyst requires that I talk about public issues," Zeghidi told the hearing.

"I would like to know what is the sentence or word that was found to be in violation of the penal code," he added.

'Neither an opponent nor supporter'

Both Zeghidi and Bssais face charges under Decree 54, a law mandating up to five years in prison for the use of communications networks to "produce, spread (or) disseminate... false news" with the aim of "harming" and "defaming" others.

Zeghidi was prosecuted for comments made in February and expressing support for journalist Mohamed Boughalleb, who is also in detention.

"I'm neither an opponent nor a supporter of the president," Zeghidi said in court.

"Sometimes I support his choices and sometimes I criticise them. It's part of my job."

All opinions

Bssais faces charges for attacking President Kais Saied through radio broadcasts and statements between 2019 and 2022.

"I'm a host, so I must present all opinions regardless of their orientations," he said during the hearing, adding he had been arrested as if he was a "dangerous criminal."

Both men's lawyers slammed Decree 54, which critics have said is being used to stifle political dissent.

"When politics enters the courtroom, justice leaves," Zeghidi's lawyer, Kamel Massoud, said, blasting the decree as "unconstitutional".

Tens of suspects prosecuted

Bssais's lawyer, Khaled Khrichi, said there were other ways to respond to criticism.

"An entire people is being prosecuted under Decree 54," he said.

Since the decree was signed into effect by Saied in 2022, more than 60 journalists, lawyers and opposition figures have been prosecuted under it, according to the National Union of Tunisian Journalists.

The journalists' union last week condemned Bssais and Zeghidi's arrests, saying they were "a violation of the right to freedom of expression, press and publication."

Dozens of journalists and rights defenders protested on Wednesday in front of the courthouse where the two men were being tried.

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