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War on free expression escalates with repressive legislation

The Tunisian government has intensified its attack on dissenting voices with a bill that will be used to silence critical journalists. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 20 IFEX members, condemns the adoption by the Tunisian Chamber of Deputies on 15 June of a law designed to eliminate political and social unrest. A number of other IFEX members also protested the new law.

The new legislation amends Article 61a of the penal code, which currently imposes jail sentences from five to 12 years for contacting "agents of a foreign power to undermine the military or diplomatic situation in Tunisia." The amendment stipulates that any Tunisian who establishes "contacts with agents of a foreign power or a foreign organisation" to harm "Tunisia's vital interests" and its "economic security" will be sanctioned, reported the official news agency TAP. The bill's vague language identifies lobbying as sharing intelligence with the enemy.

This repressive act appears to be a reaction to calls by Tunisian human rights defenders for the European Union (EU) to tie Tunisia's promotion to an "advanced status" with the EU to the improvement of its alarming human rights record, says the IFEX-TMG. The bill was quickly approved by parliament at a time when the government targeted vocal human rights defenders, who had just met with European Union officials, with a smear campaign backed by the state-run media.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the change is unconstitutional since it violates freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution.

In a joint statement, IFEX-TMG members said any restrictions on freedom of expression should not be vaguely drafted and should be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued - protecting national security.

"The legislative branch is a tool to serve the President's interests and silence his critics," Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a former judge, told the IFEX-TMG. He has constantly been harassed since he sent a letter in 2001 to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to urge him to protect the independence of the judiciary.

In a separate joint action, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch joined other rights groups to protest the use of the law to "criminalise the defense of human rights."

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