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Government rolls back freedom of expression gains of Tunisian Revolution

Journalists and media center staff walk outside the elections press center in the capital Tunis, 4 May 2018
Journalists and media center staff walk outside the elections press center in the capital Tunis, 4 May 2018

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on article19.org on 3 May 2018.

In a statement issued today, Tunisian civil society organisations express serious concern at a trend in recent attempts at legislation, which risks the constitutional achievements and guarantees on freedom of expression and access to information since the revolution.

These guarantees, the first of their kind in the MENA region, saw freedom of expression, media regulation and access to information issues at the forefront of constitutional change, and subsequent legislation.

In recent months however there have been significant attempts by the government in the form of draft laws, to roll back on key legislation in the areas of media regulation, the excessive use of the criminal code in claims of defamation, and lack of progress on the regulation and protection of personal data.

"The government must uphold the gains of the Tunisian revolution, in particular the rights of all to freedom of expression and access to information and not defend the political and financial interests of a few," said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19.

The organisations call on members of the Parliament to take a responsible stand and reject the draft laws, which appear to be favoring political and financial lobbies at the expense of the rights and freedoms provided for in the 2014 Constitution.

"Before discussing draft laws MPs should thoroughly consider comments and opinions of legal experts known for their neutrality and independence, as well as civil society representatives committed to the defense of freedom of expression and information," said Saloua Ghazouani Oueslati, Regional Director, ARTICLE 19 Middle East and North Africa.

The continuous use of the criminal code for defamation related activities within the media and the right to legally sue writers, journalists, bloggers and artists poses a growing threat to freedom of expression in Tunisia.

Legal proceedings are currently underway targeting the chief editor of NAWAT website Thameur Mekki, for a recent article criticizing Tunisian businessperson Nabil Karoui, and owner of NESSMA TV Channel, for tax evasion and his campaign against the Tunisian independent audio-visual regulator (HAICA).

Furthermore, Mehdi Ben Gharbia, the Minister in charge of Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights, initiated a criminal defamation case against blogger Mohamed Hammami, resulting in his imprisonment for 8 months and a penalty of 120 dinars by the Court of Appeal of Bizerte on 17 April.

"The time has come to abrogate article 128 of the criminal code, which has been used for decades to muzzle and imprison critics against political and financial powers, a practice that has no place in a democratic society," said Oueslati.

In the area of data protection, the draft law on the protection of private data, prepared by the Ministry in charge of Constitutional instances, Civil Society and Human Rights, adopted by the Cabinet on 8 March 2018, entirely neglected Organic Law n.22/2016 on the right of access to information. In a statement issued on 26 April, the Access to Information Commission considered the draft to contain "a serious regression of the right of access to information clearly proclaimed in article 32 of the Constitution and a violation of the transparency and accountability principles concerning the management of public facilities."

Further more the draft offers "a pretext to public structures to adopt a non-disclosure policy of information related to public management arguing for the protection of private data."

The Ministry has also persistently dispersed legal texts regulating audiovisual media. The government appears to have ignored two open letters and two legal analyses explicitly stating that the draft law prepared by the government fails to protect the audiovisual landscape against the control of political and financial powers.

While, many countries around the world are striving to harmonize audiovisual regulations to reflect the new media landscape across various sectors, the draft law includes "unconstitutional" restrictions of the freedom of audiovisual media.

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