Tunisia: ‘You can go to jail for a word or an idea’

When Jabeur Mejri, a Tunisian blogger, expressed views online that were deemed offensive to Islam, it cost him his freedom. He was jailed in 2012 for over seven years for “attacking sacred values through actions or words” and “undermining public morals”. 

Lina Ben Mhenni is the author of the blog A Tunisian Girl. She told Amnesty International about her shock at Jabeur’s sentence, and the risks Tunisians run by expressing their views freely.

“Jabeur’s conviction and sentence was a big shock. It is incredible. People are talking about the success of the democratic transition in Tunisia, but can we talk about democracy at all in a country where someone is sent to jail with such a heavy sentence just for expressing his beliefs?

“Before the departure of [former President] Ben Ali, bloggers faced censorship, and maybe arrest and jail. Then we witnessed a few months of revolutionary euphoria, during which Tunisians could express themselves freely [after the first uprising in the Middle East and North Africa in January 2011]. But it didn’t last.

“Today there is no official censorship − people can express themselves freely − but they have to be ready to pay the price. It can start with online and newspaper defamation [smear] campaigns, verbal and physical harassment on the street, or online and real life threats. It can go on to trials, arrests, jail and end with death threats and death.”

Opinion trials“You can go to jail for a word or an idea. ‘Opinion trials’ have become part of our daily lives: Jabeur is our first opinion prisoner. Rappers Weld el 15 and Clay BBJ were sentenced to a year and nine months in jail for a song. Another young man was given a two month suspended jail sentence for listening to a rap song.

“As in many other countries, Tunisia’s taboo topics are religion and politics. You can’t criticize the government in general or the Islamists in particular.

“I feel threatened, just for blogging and criticizing the government and the awful, regressing situation in Tunisia. I’m on an assassination list and under police protection. I feel like I have lost my own freedom while trying to fight for my country and my people’s freedom. If we don’t react to what is happening, every subject will soon become taboo.”

Stealing people’s right to be different“The authorities gave Jabeur his sentence to intimidate other people, to prevent people from expressing themselves, to steal their right to be different. They wanted to announce that in order to live in Tunisia, we have to abide by their rules and their beliefs. 

“Our freedom of expression is in real danger. I am afraid that we are losing the unique fruits of the revolution: the disappearance of fear and our freedom of speech. We have to keep on fighting to protect and preserve this right.  “We have to stop the attacks on freedom of speech, and reform our justice system. Judges should refuse to work according to orders dictated by political leaders or parties. We mustn’t be afraid of intimidation.

“I want to tell all Tunisians: We have to unite to say no to censorship and opinion trials.” 

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