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IFEX-TMG concerned by series of setbacks, calls on authorities to consolidate free expression in the country

(IFEX-TMG) – 15 February 2012 – The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, calls on the Tunisian government to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression in Tunisia, by swiftly addressing a series of worrying setbacks in the country, which compromise the positive legal reforms which have taken root since the revolution. The IFEX-TMG reiterates its call to the new Tunisian government to consolidate Tunisia's nascent democracy and truly demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression.

With the Tunisian revolution, came the need to revolutionise the broadcasting media in Tunisia. In 2011, the Interim Government prepared several decrees, including the Higher Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) and the Press Code, to replace restrictive laws inherited from the Ben Ali regime and facilitate the country's democratic transition. By providing legal guarantees for free broadcasting during the post-revolutionary period, the HAICA promised to strengthen the foundations of Tunisia's emerging democracy. However, on Thursday February 9th, the high official from the Prime Minister's office, Ridha Kazdaghli, revealed that the government will conduct a review of the already passed laws, including the HAICA and the press code.

In response to these worrying developments, IFEX-TMG calls on the Tunisian government to immediately pass the application decrees regarding the establishment of the HAICA, a regulatory body consisting of experts and representatives of all stakeholders to protect media against all forms of corruption and abuse.

The press code, which the government has also highlighted as needing to be reviewed despite having been published in the official gazette, Erraid Ettunsi, on 2 November 2011, was drafted by the media sub-committee of the Higher Authority to Achieve the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, in cooperation with the Higher Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC), the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists and the General Syndicate of Information and Culture.

Under former President Ben Ali's regime, the print press was subject to a comprehensive system of censorship. In strengthening the rights of journalists, the new Press Code represented, in part, a dismantlement of these repressive structures.

“Despite public promises made by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali in January 2012 to implement these decrees... the failure to abide by decrees passed under the former transitional government and run by the official gazette thus far is alarming,” said Kamel Labidi, President of INRIC. “It is shocking to see the government inclined to yield to pressure groups which were close to the country's fugitive dictator and unwilling to conform to international standards for media broadcasting regulation,” he added.

“Tunisia's transition to democracy in 2011 stands out. The establishment of the HAICA and a range of other laws to enshrine the protection of freedom of expression, counted among the key successes of this period, hailed the world over by international civil society and governments alike. Unfortunately, the recent government-generated debate on the legitimacy of the HAICA and the controversial government appointments of heads of public media are all worrying signs that the government is attempting to turn back the clock,” said Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director

Secondly, the IFEX-TMG calls for the charges of blasphemy and disturbing the public order brought against the Director of Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, using the old press code of 1975 and not the new press code of 2011, to be immediately dropped. The ongoing postponement of the trial of Nessma TV for screening the animated film Persepolis in October 2011, now set for 19 April 2012, is totemic of the critical juncture facing the protection of freedom of expression in the country.

If convicted of the charges of "violating sacred values" and "disturbing the public order", Karoui of Nessma TV will face up to three years in jail.

“Rather than keep postponing the trial, the IFEX-TMG calls on the Tunisian authorities to drop the charges altogether. Freedom of expression is supposed to provide all individuals with the right to express their views, even if those views are different or deemed offensive to some,” said Virginie Jouan, IFEX-TMG Chair.

The Nessma trial has sparked the recent wave of violence against journalists. Tunisian journalist Zied Krichen and Tunisian university professor Hamadi Redissi were physically and verbally attacked in connection with the Nessma TV trial. Elsewhere in the country, two women journalists covering a sit-in protest at a university were attacked. The IFEX-TMG is extremely concerned by the growing list of Tunisian journalists, including women journalists and bloggers who have been physically assaulted since the revolution.

The IFEX-TMG is equally concerned by the Minister for Human Rights', Samir Dilou, recent statement regarding freedom of expression which are tantamount to a pick and choose approach to human rights protection. The Minister recently expressed his opposition to the publication of a Tunisian LGBT magazine. The IFEX-TMG would like to remind the Minister for Human Rights that free expression – as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - is a right for all individuals regardless of their sexual inclinations, race or religion.

The situation for freedom of expression online is also at the crossroads. The Cour de Cassation, Tunisia's highest court, is expected on 22 February to order Tunisia's Internet Agency (ATI) to block sites which purportedly violate the law on protecting children. The ATI has refused to follow the decision of a lower court, arguing that it would degrade the speed of the internet. The IFEX-TMG is concerned that the reimposition of internet filtering would be used to block other information. “If the aim is to protect youth and children from such content, parental controls rather than internet censorship are the best way to do this,” added Jouan.

According to Riadh Guerfali, co-founder of and constitutional and internet law professor, “the right to freedom of expression is recognised as a fundamental right under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Tunisia is a party. Under international law, any restriction on that right must have a legal basis, pursue a legitimate aim and must be necessary in a democratic society. In their 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, the four special mandates on freedom of expression have made it clear that content-based restrictions on the Internet are legitimate only if they are ordered by a judicial authority applying those international standards. A blanket ban on access to pornography, even if ordered by a court, would be disproportionate as mandatory filtering would inevitably result in legitimate speech being blocked."

The IFEX-TMG reiterates its call to the new Tunisian government to consolidate Tunisia's nascent democracy and truly demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression.

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Freedom House
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Journaliste en danger
Maharat Foundation
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
PEN International
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
World Press Freedom Committee

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