Tunisia: Attack on freedom of expression must end

The Tunisian government must stop undermining freedom of expression and amend laws that threaten people’s right to criticize the state, Amnesty International said ahead of journalist’s demonstration today in what is being described as a “day of anger”.

The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists has organized a demonstration against Tunisian authorities who have exerted pressure on journalists who cover security operations or are critical of state institutions.

All people in Tunisia must be able to openly express their criticism of state institutions and public officials, including security forces, without the fear of prosecution
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Heba Morayef

“The right to freedom of expression is essential in a robust and dynamic society. All people in Tunisia must be able to openly express their criticism of state institutions and public officials, including security forces, without the fear of prosecution,” said Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Heba Morayef.

This morning’s demonstration is in response to a statement made by the Minister of Interior, Lotfi Brahem, in a parliamentary hearing on 29 January where he admitted that journalists were being monitored, revealing that one had been summoned by police because the Ministry of Interior had “wiretapped a phone conversation” he had with a protester.

The statement came after heavy criticism of Tunisia’s security forces during protests against increased living costs and tax hikes that erupted at the start of January. Journalists covering the protests reported instances of harassment and intimidation by state authorities.

“Such tactics are reminiscent of past practices that have no place in modern Tunisian society. Police monitoring and harassing journalists in connection with their work is a blatant violation of press freedom. The Tunisian government must ensure that all journalists in the country are able to carry out their work free from intimidation, harassment and the threat of arrest,” Heba Morayef said.

During the 29 January hearing in parliament, Lotfi Brahem also declared that his ministry would prosecute any bloggers who “doubt the integrity of security institutions and undermine the morale of security forces”.

The Tunisian government must ensure that all journalists in the country are able to carry out their work free from intimidation, harassment and the threat of arrest
Heba Morayef

On 15 January police arrested Kais Bouazizi in the city of Sidi Bouzid for a Facebook post that he published calling for protests against the new government’s economic and financial austerity measures. A prosecutor charged Bouazizi under article 121 of the penal code, which penalizes disseminating news that could cause “harm to the public order or public morals.” The court acquitted and freed Bouazizi after a week spent in pre-trial detention.

The Minister of Interior’s statement was widely condemned and criticized by journalists and free speech advocates. This was followed by a wave of threats and incitement to violence against journalists on social media by police unions who reject all criticism of police conduct and the Ministry of Interior’s policies.

‘’Instead of seeking to restrict freedom of expression, the Tunisian authorities should be working on amending and repealing laws and practices that threaten this right, finally harmonizing the Tunisian penal code with International Standards and the Tunisian Constitution of 2014” Heba Morayef said.

Background

Since 2011, bloggers, artists and journalists have been prosecuted for peacefully criticizing the Tunisian security forces.

In January this year, blogger and parliamentarian Yassine Ayari was tried in a military court for “undermining the morale of the army” after a Facebook post in which he mocked the appointment of a senior military commander. 

In July, singer Ahmed Ben Ahmed was assaulted by a group of police officers who had been assigned to protect him. The officers had been offended by Ben Ahmed’s music, claiming that his songs insulted the police. A police union later filed a complaint before the Court of First Instance in the city of Mahdia against the artist, under the Penal Code crime of “insulting state officials”.

Security forces unions in Tunisia have been calling for the adoption of a bill that includes provisions that could criminalize criticism of the security forces, including for human rights abuses. Article 12 of the bill criminalizes the “denigration” of police and other security forces with the aim of “harming public order”, making it punishable with a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dinars.