Concern as Tunisian media freedom body shuts down
On 4 July the National Authority for Information and Communication Reform (INRIC), a body enlisted with helping reform the media landscape in Tunisia, announced the end of its mission. In April 2012 INRIC had submitted its report with a set of recommendations that would seek to pave the way for the transformation of the media […]
10 Jul 12

On 4 July the National Authority for Information and Communication Reform (INRIC), a body enlisted with helping reform the media landscape in Tunisia, announced the end of its mission.

In April 2012 INRIC had submitted its report with a set of recommendations that would seek to pave the way for the transformation of the media landscape in the north African country into a democratic, independent, and pluralistic one.

“Our mission ends by submitting a report,” said Kamel Labidi, head of the commission, during a press conference. He added:

The law which created INRIC stipulates that the authority should submit a vision, suggestions, and recommendations on media reforms (…) Now that it has been two months since we submitted our general report to the three Presidents (President of the Republic, Moncef Marzouki, PM Hamdi Jebali, and President of the National Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar), members of the NCA, to our colleagues, and civil society components we cannot continue serving as decor, especially with the absence of communication with the public authorities.

Labidi accused decision makers of “ignoring” the INRIC report, which recommends the implementation of the decree laws 115 and 116 ratified in November 2011 by the interim government of former PM Beji Caid Sebsi.

Decree law 115, related to the freedom of press, print, and publishing, bans the Interior Ministry from intervening in press-related matters. Unlike previous press laws, this law recognises web journalists as “professional journalists”. When it comes to libel, chapter 59 of this law stipulates that in public affairs cases, the journalist shall not carry the burden of proof.

Decree law 116 stipulates that a high independent authority for audio-visual communications has to be formed. The law seeks to “organise the audio-visual media landscape in a pluralistic, democratic and transparent manner, and to fill the legal vacuum in this field,” INRIC said in its report.

Once implemented, these two decree-laws will protect journalists who are still being prosecuted under liberticidal and vague laws drafted during the Ben Ali era. For instance, Nessma TV boss and Ettounisia director were both fined under Article 121 (3) of the Tunisian Penal Code which prohibits the distribution of content liable “to cause harm to the public order or public morals.”

At the press conference, Laabidi warned against the “increase in the indicators which point to the existence of a serious threat to freedom of expression, and the independence of public media institutions”. He criticised the government’s appointment of new bosses for nine public radios, without consulting the concerned parties such as the journalists’ union.

On 2 July the names of the new directors were announced. Lotfi Zitoun, an advisor to the PM, told that Mohamed Meddeb, CEO of the Institution of the National Tunisian Radio, was responsible for the nominations. Meddeb himself was appointed by the current government last April, also without consulting any media body or journalists’ union.

In a press conference on 6 July the government denied the INRIC’s accusations, claiming that reforming the media sector lies in the hands of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), elected in October 2011 to draft a new constitution for the Tunisian Republic.

As the mission of the INRIC comes to an end, the situation of press freedom in Tunisia is still fragile amidst the absence of a political will to bring about real legal change so that journalists would be able to do their jobs without fearing persecution.

Press Release | IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

(IFEX-TMG) – 9 July 2012 – The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members including Index on Censorship, is deeply concerned by the prevailing uncertainty and obstruction that have led the National Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC) to end its work.

IFEX-TMG members are disturbed by the closure of INRIC, the repeated failures of the government to act upon its recommendations, and the consequences of the decision for the future of media reform in Tunisia.

Since the beginning of its mandate, INRIC members have cited the reluctance of the government to commit to the necessary reforms that would introduce significant change to the Tunisian media framework and safeguard freedom of expression.

As one of the fundamental reasons behind its decision to terminate its work, INRIC cited the failure to apply decrees 115 (dated 2 November 2011 on Freedom of the Press, Printing and Publishing) and 116 (dated 2 November 2011 on Freedom of Audio-Visual Communication and Establishing a Supreme Independent Body of Audio and Visual Communication), designed to ensure the protection of journalists and provide the basis for a framework regulating new audio-visual media.

The President of INRIC, Kamel Labidi, has been quoted on the record as stating:

The body does not see the point in continuing and announces that it has terminated its work,” justifying the committee’s decision by claiming the government had reverted to “censorship and disinformation.

Pro-government daily newspapers al-Chourouk and Essiwar reacted to the announcement by launching a virulent smear campaign against INRIC and its President. The disinformation and insults published in the two papers are reminiscent of the Ben Ali era, when independent journalists and human rights defenders were attacked regularly by the regime and its adherents.

As the independent authority charged with recommending the necessary reforms for the media, and in particular state media organs, to guarantee freedom of the press in Tunisia, INRIC, with the support of local and international media and human rights partners including the IFEX-TMG, has been consistently critical of the government for lacking the necessary will to take the required steps to ensure the independence of the media.

Labidi told the IFEX-TMG:

The time has come for former INRIC members to work hand in hand with journalists and civil society advocates yearning for the protection of independent journalism

Accusations of a reversion to censorship and disinformation are a serious blow to the credibility of the Tunisian government’s commitment to reforming the media sector and establishing inclusive, transparent and democratic institutions. Reluctance to support the work of INRIC, considered by many inside the country and internationally as one of the most successful democratic undertakings of the post-revolution phase, calls into question the future direction of the entire reform process in Tunisia.

The IFEX-TMG is particularly concerned by the alarming slide in freedom of expression witnessed since the October elections. The dissolution of INRIC can therefore only contribute to what appears to be a serious retreat in the hard-won freedoms achieved since the revolution.

IFEX-TMG members therefore urge the government to clarify its position on basic rights, to make significant and demonstrable assurances to the media, civil society and human rights groups in the country as to how future freedom of expression will be guaranteed, and to adhere in both principle and in act to the values contained in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The latest IFEX-TMG report Spring into Winter? that will be presented to the Tunisian authorities this week, highlights the still fragile hold on democracy.

For more information:
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

Virginie Jouan, Chair
on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)

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 (JED)
Maharat Foundation (Skills Foundation)
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)
World Press Freedom Committee
Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International