Tunisia: Rescind ministerial order censoring health workers over Covid-19

Tunisian authorities should immediately withdraw a ministerial order imposing sanctions on doctors and health workers who make unauthorized declarations about the Covid-19 situation in Tunisia, said Amnesty International today.

On 16 April 2021, the Tunisian Ministry of Health issued a directive stating that only a specified list of representatives from the health sector are authorized to make statements to the media or on social media in relation to the pandemic. Doctors and other Ministry of Health workers whose names are not listed may face disciplinary and criminal punishment if they speak to journalists or post on social media without prior authorization.

“This ministerial order is a blatant attempt by Tunisia’s authorities to censor health workers and silence critics of the government’s Covid-19 response. Throughout the pandemic, health workers have put their own health and lives at risk to help others and now the Tunisian authorities are repaying them with brazen censorship. Like anyone else, their right to freedom of expression must be protected,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. 

“Stopping doctors and health workers from voicing their concerns or sharing information by demanding they seek prior authorization for any public declaration is a serious blow for freedom of expression in Tunisia.

“It is vital that health workers are allowed to speak freely and without fear of reprisals to ensure the public can access timely, trustworthy and accurate information about the nature and level of the health threat and the measures taken by the authorities to protect public health and address the pandemic.” 

This ministerial order is a blatant attempt by Tunisia’s authorities to censor health workers and silence critics of the government’s Covid-19 response.

Amna Guellali, Amnesty International

The government order states that “only a nominated list of representatives from the health sector will be authorized to deal with written and audio-visual media, as well as social media.”

It lists the general director of the National Observatory of New and Emerging diseases and the members of the Scientific Commission to fight new Coronavirus as the only individuals authorized to talk to journalists or comment on social media about “the epidemiological situation and the preventative measures to fight Covid-19.”

The order lists four other names from specific institutions who are authorized to make public statements about the national vaccination campaign. 

Directors of public health institutions are listed as being the only representatives authorized to speak about the health situation and preventative measures in hospitals and other health institutions.

The order warns that anyone who contravenes the rules may face “disciplinary and penal sanctions.”

Doctors and other health workers in Tunisia have played a prominent role in informing the public about the pandemic situation and in commenting on the efficiency and timeliness of the authorities’ response. They are regularly invited on prime-time TV shows to give their assessment about the government’s policies and have on numerous occasions exposed the authorities’ lack of preparedness and cohesive action to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a party, protects the right to freedom of expression of everyone, including health and essential workers. This right includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. 

Public health may be invoked as a ground for limiting the right to freedom of expression in order to allow a state to take measures dealing with a serious threat to the health of the population, but such measures must be provided by law and be necessary and proportionate specifically aimed at a relevant legitimate purpose such as preventing the spread of or otherwise addressing a disease like COVID-19. Restrictions targeting doctors and health care workers, like any other blanket prohibition on the dissemination of information, are unnecessary and disproportionate and are clearly inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression.

In November 2020, Amnesty International released a report documenting a pattern of criminal investigations and prosecutions of young activists in relation to their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression on social media. In several cases, young activists were summoned for criticizing the government’s response to Covid-19. 

“Over the last three years we have seen worrying signs of regression when it comes to freedom of expression,  with young activists summoned and interrogated on criminal charges that carry heavy prison sentences for Facebook posts in which they criticize local officials or members of the security services. This latest decision is the latest sign of regression and must be immediately withdrawn,” said Amna Guellali.