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Independent judiciary key to safeguard free expression

Tunisia needs a truly independent judiciary to combat its worsening record on human rights and treatment of prisoners of opinion, said the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 20 IFEX members, after its seventh mission to the country from 25 April to 6 May.

The IFEX-TMG gathered in Beirut on 6 June to launch its latest report: "Behind the Façade: How a Politicised Judiciary and Administrative Sanctions Undermine Tunisian Human Rights." The launch came as part of the Arab Free Press Forum hosted by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), an IFEX-TMG member.

"The report reveals how the legal system in Tunisia can be abused and manipulated by the authorities to silence critical opinion," said Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship, current chair of the IFEX-TMG. "Only a truly independent legal system - from courthouse lawyers to supreme court judges - can protect constitutionally guaranteed human rights."

The report also details cases of harassment, surveillance and imprisonment of journalists and human rights defenders. Some have been detained in harsh conditions, physically harassed and dismissed from their jobs. Others have been denied their rights to communicate and move freely.

Journalists from Egypt, Morocco and Palestine at the Arab Free Press Forum expressed concern about violations against the press in Tunisia. "I'm almost embarrassed to talk about Morocco when things are so bad in Tunisia," said one journalist. Another journalist commented that there has not been a political cartoon published in Tunisia in decades.

As the Tunisian government seeks "advanced status" with the EU, the IFEX-TMG aims to bring attention to the dissonance between the image the government presents to the world and its attacks on critical voices at home. The group also urges the Tunisian "government to take serious steps to adhere to international standards of basic human rights, as guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution as well as by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," says Amadou Kanoute of ARTICLE 19, the team leader for the IFEX-TMG mission.

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