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New authorities, old-style crackdown

April 2012: Tunisians defying a ban to demonstrate on the legendary Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis were met with police repression
April 2012: Tunisians defying a ban to demonstrate on the legendary Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis were met with police repression

Amine Landoulsi/DEMOTIX

Security forces marked Martyr's Day on 9 April in Tunisia by dispersing thousands of protesters - including more than a dozen journalists - with tear gas and truncheons. It is just the latest sign that despite Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali being the first dictator to fall in the Arab uprisings, old-style free expression violations continue, reports the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members.

Around a thousand demonstrators defied an indefinite government ban on protests on Tunis's Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the site of the protests that led to dictator Ben Ali's downfall, and turned out on 9 April, reports IFEX-TMG. They were commemorating Martyrs' Day (marking the 1938 event when French troops opened fire on Tunis protesters calling for a constitution) and rallying against Tunisia's rising unemployment and rising political tensions.

Protesters sought shelter in neighbouring streets and shops, as police beat them with batons and fired tear gas into the scattered crowd. According to ARTICLE 19, security forces allegedly dragged away several protesters, but no there's been no info on their arrests. IFEX-TMG reports that at least 14 journalists were attacked, with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recording a further two journalists assaulted. International journalists were among those targeted, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

A protest on Saturday by thousands of unemployed graduates was met with similar violence.

"One year into the revolution and some of the essential milestones for human rights protection are increasingly weakened. The indefinite ban of all protests on the Habib Bourguiba Avenue… constitutes an illegitimate restriction on freedom of expression and assembly. The use of violence by security forces on the occasion of Martyr's Day…sends out another very wrong message about Tunisia's ability to uphold fundamental freedoms," said Agnès Callamard, executive director of ARTICLE 19.

The attack by security forces follows "a pattern of police abuse," says IFEX-TMG, which has documented several incidents in the past few months of police attacking journalists who were covering demonstrations.

Even in incidents where the security forces were not the perpetrators, the police have sat idly by and offered little protection to those under attack, says IFEX-TMG. For instance, when a sit-in at Manouba University protesting the banning of niqab-wearing students from sitting for their exams became violent, security forces failed to intervene and made no arrests.

"We call on the government to put its rhetoric into action by taking practical steps such as training their security forces on positively interacting with protesters, sensitising them on how to work with the media and on actively stepping in to protect the right to free expression so that citizens can enjoy this fundamental right without the fear of retribution," said Virginie Jouan, chair of IFEX-TMG.

Tunisia has undergone a few press freedom setbacks recently that make critics wonder how far along it has come since Ben Ali's fall last February.

The IFEX-TMG statement also points to a worrying pattern of attacks on freedom of expression based on religious morality.

Last month, two men were handed seven-year prison terms for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam. Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji published an essay satirising aspects of the Prophet Mohammed's biography, crudely deriding his sexual life. The other man, Jaber Ben Abdallah Majri, published photos on his Facebook page with caricatures of the Prophet drawn from Beji's book, along with satirical writings about Islam and the Prophet.

According to Human Rights Watch, there have been at least three cases of the authorities bringing charges for speech deemed offensive to Islam or morality since the country's new National Constituent Assembly convened in November 2011. In one case Nasreddine Ben Saïda, director of the daily newspaper "Ettounsiyya", spent a week in pretrial detention in February for publishing a photo of a soccer star posing with his half-nude girlfriend.

Then there's Nabil Karoui, director of Nessma TV, who is on trial for airing the animated movie "Persepolis", which contains a pictorial representation of God, reports IFEX-TMG. Many Muslims believe God must not be depicted in images.

"As long as these repressive Ben Ali-era laws are on the books, authorities will have the temptation to use them whenever politically convenient," said Human Rights Watch.

The IFEX members are calling on the National Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution with strong safeguards for free expression. ARTICLE 19 has prepared a policy brief based on international legal free expression standards that puts the protection of human rights at the heart of the new constitution. Read it here.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Related stories on ifex.org
  • Police attack journalists covering protest

    The crackdown on protesters and journalists marked the worst violence seen in the country since the fall of Ben Ali's regime in January 2011.



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