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Free speech on hold in Tunisia as rapper faces jail

On 21 March, a Tunisian court sentenced rapper Ala Yacoubi (aka Weld El15) to two years in prison in absentia, over an anti-police song and video, Boulicia Kleb published on YouTube. In the song, Weld El15 describes police officers as “dogs” and says “he would like to slaughter a police officer instead of sheep at Eid al-Adha”. Four other rappers, to whom Weld El15 dedicated the song, were also sentenced to two years in prison in absentia. Actress Sabrine Klibi, who appears in the video, and cameraman Mohamed Hedi Belgueyed, were arrested on 10 March. They each received a six-month suspended jail sentence.

Yacoubi, who is in hiding, told award-winning blog Nawaat:

"There are those who accuse me of inciting violence against police. I was only using their language…I was subject to all forms of police violence: physical and verbal. As an artist, I can only answer them through my art: aggressive art…I expressed myself in a country, where I thought freedom of expression exists. It turned out that I was wrong."

To bring charges against Weld El15 and his associates, prosecutors applied anti-free speech laws inherited from the dictatorship era. Among these laws are articles 128 and 226 of the Penal Code. The former carries a penalty of a six-month jail term for “affronting public decency”; while article 128 states that anyone found guilty of “accusing without proof a public official” could face a two-year jail term.

Weld El15 is not the only victim of these liberticidal laws. Blogger Olfa Rihai could face imprisonment over criminal defamation charges [articles 128 and 245 of the Tunisian Penal Code]. Last December, Riahi posted on her blog an article alleging that the then foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem “misused public money” by spending several nights at the luxurious Sheraton hotel in Tunis. She went on to claime that the minister might have been involved in an extra-marital affair. Riahi is also accused of “harming others or disrupting their lives through public communication networks,” under article 86 of the Telecommunication code (Law no.1-2001 of 15 January 2001). If convicted under this article, she could spend up to two years in prison and pay a fine of up to 1,000 Tunisian dinars.

Article 86 of the Telecommunication Code highlights Tunisia's vulnerable internet freedom. Despite, positive steps taken by the Tunisian authorities in favour of free speech online, freedom of the internet remains under threat due to Ben Ali's ICT laws. Last September, Mongi Marzoug minister of Information and Communications Technology, officially announced “the death of Ammar404” [slang for Tunisian internet censorship]. In January, the ICT ministry cancelled a number of regulatory provisions in the licenses previously awarded to privately-owned telecom operators Tunisiana and Orange Tunisie.

The two ISPs are now able to bypass the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), for incoming and outgoing international Internet traffic. The former regime obliged ISPs to route their internet traffic via the ATI to facilitate internet filtering and surveillance.

Yet these guarantees remain insufficient, as long as repressive ICT and internet laws remain on the books. For instance, article 9 of Internet Regulations (dated 22 March, 1997) obliges ISPs to monitor and take down content contrary to public order and “good morals”. No one can stand in the way of prosecutors and judges who wish to apply these laws.

The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) is scheduled to adopt a new constitution by next summer. A second draft of the constitution, released last December, enshrines the right to free expression and prohibits “prior censorship”. However, unless anti free speech laws are revised or abolished, the future constitution will in no way be enough to guarantee free expression.

By Afef Abrougui for Index on Censorship's blog UNCUT

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