Tunisia’s press faces repressive laws, uncertain future
The press in Tunisia is caught between the restrictive legal framework of the Ben Ali regime and the uncertainties of the post-revolutionary transition, Rohan Jayasekera, Ghias Aljundi and Yousef Ahmed report.
02 May 13

“Tunisians are clearly aware of the heavy responsibility they hold with regard to the future of democracy in the region. They do know that the entire world is watching carefully, that their success, or failure, will have a significant impact in the Arab world. It is here, indeed, that the democratic renewal of the Arab world is unfolding.”

Journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine From the anthology, Fleeting Words, edited by Naziha Rjiba, published in cooperation with PEN Tunisia and Atlas Publications, with the support of Index on Censorship and IFEX.

Tunisian people try to reach democracy and fighting against political violence. Photo:  fbioche / Demotix

Photo: fbioche / Demotix

During the next few months, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) will present its final draft of Tunisia’s new constitution, a document that has seen many changes of emphasis since the NCA was founded in November 2011. A second draft in December 2012 offered new guarantees for free speech rights and barred prior censorship. Yet the ill-defined and repressive legal framework created by former President Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali to silence dissident voices is still in place, and free speech advocates remain concerned over Islamist vows to criminalise blasphemy.

Although Ben Ali’s autocratic rule ended almost two years ago, his legacy remains on the books. Ben Ali-era laws represent a serious threat to free speech. The public prosecutor’s office used Article 121 (3) of the Tunisian Penal Code to charge Nessma TV boss Nabil Karoui for broadcasting the animated film Persepolis and newspaper director Nasreddine Ben Saida, the publisher of the Arabic-language daily Attounissia, for publishing a photo of German-Tunisian football player Sami Khedira embracing a naked model.

The article prohibits the distribution of publications “liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals”. Supporters of free expression in Tunisia will have to wait until a third and final draft of the constitution, due in Spring 2013, to see if the NCA can find the will to amend or abolish this article and other anti-free speech laws, journalists, bloggers and artists risk facing more “public disorder” and “morality” charges.

The revolution raised urgent need to fundamentally reform the media sector in Tunisia and accordingly the interim government prepared new, progressive, if imperfect, media legislation in 2011 to replace the restrictive laws inherited from the Ben Ali regime. However the proposed legal guarantees were stonewalled by the government of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda’s Secretary General.

Decree-law 116 requires the creation of an independent high authority to regulate broadcast media. But this decree has been resisted by the interim government which instead has continued to make its own political appointments to senior media management posts.
To date the government has declined to implement the decree, or a parallel decree-law, 115-2011, on the print media. Months after the ousting of Ben Ali, distrust remains deep in the media sector, while resistance to reform prevails.

“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, a veteran journalist and human rights defender, who led the National Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC), an independent body tasked with reforming the media sector after the revolution.

“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.”

Attacks on the media and the rise of ‘Sacred Values’

Over 2012, street attacks on free speech in the name of religion increased dramatically, a trend that can only increase, given the apparent indifference of police and level of impunity enjoyed by the attackers. Tunisia’s current government routinely expresses condemnation of violence and its commitment to free speech. Yet the seriousness of that commitment is constantly questioned as officials turn a blind eye to the perpetrators and blame the victims.

Police brutality against journalists did not take long to resume after the fall of the regime either. As early as May 2011, journalists, bloggers and photographers were targeted while covering demonstrations and this pattern of abuse by law enforcement has continued to this date. On 24 March, Al-Jazeera journalist Lotfi Hajji was attacked while reporting from a meeting organised by supporters of the former Interim Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi.

Many observers saw the April 2012 statement by Ennahda leader Ghannouchi raising the possibility of “taking radical measures in the news media domain including, possibly, privatising the public media,” as giving tacit sympathy to the violent anti-media protests.

When Islamist ‘salafist’ extremists attacked the Tunis Printemps des Arts (Spring of Arts), a modern contemporary art fair in June, Tunisian Minister of Culture, Mehdi Mabrouk, was quicker to condemn the targeted artists before the attackers and vowed to take legal action against the fair’s organisers.

Previously three Islamists accompanied by a bailiff and a lawyer had toured the Palais El-Abdellia gallery and demanded that two artworks they deemed “un-Islamic” be taken down. It was the last day of the ten day event, but after the gallery closed the salafists came back in larger numbers, broke in and destroyed a number of artworks.

Two exhibitors were charged: Nadia Jelassi for her sculpture depicting a veiled woman surrounded by a pile of rocks and Ben Slama over a work showing a line of ants streaming out of a child’s schoolbag to spell ‘Allah’. Prosecutors used Article 121.3 of the Tunisian penal code which makes it an offence to ‘distribute, offer for sale, publicly display, or possess, with the intent to distribute, sell, display for the purpose of propaganda, tracts, bulletins, and fliers, whether of foreign origin or not, that are liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals’.

Bloggers Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji and Jaber Ben Abdallah Majri were also jailed under Article 121.3 for publishing online satirical writings about Islam. Majri was detained and tried, while Beji, who fled to Europe, was convicted in absentia. During an appeals hearing on 25 June 2012, the court upheld Majri’s prison sentence, while Beji’s case was not heard on appeal.

The attacks echoed violence in the preceding year, when protesters forced their way into the Afrikart Cinema in downtown Tunis in June 2011 to protest its screening of a documentary entitled Laïcité Inshallah (“Secularism, if God wills”). And in April 2011, an unknown assailant hit film director Nouri Bouzid with a metal bar, shortly after he told a Tunisian radio station that he supported a secular constitution for Tunisia and that his next film would defend civil liberties and criticised religious fundamentalism.

Other attacks carried out by Salafists have targeted artists, including a theatre group performing on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis in March and academics, notably from Manouba University in north-eastern Tunisia, and journalists as well as media personnel and institutions. The targets included Nessma TV after the showing of Persepolis, for which station boss Karoui was later arrested, tried and fined. Karoui’s home was also firebombed. The film had earlier appeared in Tunisian cinemas with few complaints but when broadcast in October it was dubbed into a Tunisian Arabic dialect, which enraged the Salafists.

The increasing violence surrounding artistic and cultural expression deemed ‘blasphemous’ came as the ruling Islamist Ennahda Movement, which controls 40 per cent of the NCA’s seats, vowed to “legally protect the sacred” and filed a blasphemy bill. Though Ennahda later agreed in principle to drop an anti-blasphemy clause from the draft constitution after negotiations with the other two parties in the ruling coalition, the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties, it is by not likely that Islamists will give up their efforts to seek legal authority to criminally ‘punish’ the blasphemous.

The discussion surrounding the proposed amendment of Tunisia’s Penal Code to criminalise violations of sacred values, would impose broad restrictions on freedom of expression far beyond that permitted under international conventions in particular by seeking to protect “sacred values” and “symbols” that do not enjoy their protection.

The draft was vague, according to an Article 19 study, leaving the law, if adopted, open to overly broad interpretation and possible abuse. “What are sacred values?” asked the organisation. “Who determines them and how? What constitutes a violation?” The proposed law also ran counter to the view of UN human rights bodies that laws criminalising defamation of religions and protection of symbols and beliefs contradict rights to freedom of expression. The UN also concluded such laws can be counter-productive in that they are prone to abuse, sometimes at the expense of the religious minorities that they purport to protect.

State attempts to influence the media condemned

Meanwhile, the government continued to appoint the directors of major public media unilaterally, without consulting media professionals, and in the absence of transparent employment processes. The appointments brought the objectivity of the process and the appointees’ own merit and competence into question.

Amidst strong protest, the government had made its own choice of staff to lead the national news agency TAP, Tunisian TV and the country’s leading press house, Société nouvelle d’impression, de presse et d’édition (SNIPE) on 7 January 2012. Though most of these appointments were later revoked after protests organised by the National Union for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), the trick was repeated in July and August with the appointment of new directors of public radio and a new CEO of Tunisian Television.

On August 21, the government fired Samari Kamel, a well-known human rights activist, as director-general of the influential newspaper group Dar Assabah. He was replaced by Lotfi Touati, a former regime-era police commissioner and government sympathiser. In 2009, Touati was identified as the prime architect of a Ben Ali regime inspired takeover of the leadership of the country’s National Union of Journalists. The Dar Assabah media group is the oldest media house in the country, established in 1951, and Touati’s appointment stirred much controversy.

The SNTJ denounced the government’s move. And Labidi said the government had made the appointments, not based on any media experience or criteria, but because of their alignment with the ruling Ennahda party.

Days after his appointment, Touati withdrew an article due to be published one of the group’s dailies that was critical of his approach. He also fired one of the three top editors at the Arabic-language daily Assabah and published a short list of people authorised to write editorials, the reports said. The chairman of the board of Dar Assabah, Mustapha Ben Letaief and another board member, Fethi Sellaouti both resigned in protest and on September 11, Dar Assabah staff went on strike to protest his appointment.

Touati continued to draw controversy. On September 13 his speeding car injured one of his own reporters, Khalil Hannachi, as he waited outside the group offices to interview him. The journalist lost consciousness and was taken to a local hospital with head and ear injuries.

In general the state of both printing and distribution of independent newspapers is still highly problematic. While many new titles emerged when restrictions were lifted in 2011, few were sustainable, as no proactive policy promoting the emergence of a professional, free, independent and pluralistic press was put in place.

Newspapers also have been facing turmoil and hardships, with individuals close to the old regime still active in the industry. “Rather than transform the public media into free, independent and professional institutions after it had served for years as merely a tool in the hands of the Ben Ali regime, the government’s appointments have honoured Ben Ali’s men in the media sector by awarding them key posts in the public service media,” journalist Fahem Boukadous of the Tunisian Centre for Freedom of the Press (CTPJ) told mission members.

“Many have perceived these appointments as the authority’s attempt to instate individuals it can control in its effort to domesticate the media.” Also the allocation of institutional and public service advertising between media still lacks transparency despite the winding down of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE), which had used its power of advertising budget patronage to bring the Tunisian media to heel during the Ben Ali era.
Reforming the regulation of Tunisian media

Observers both inside and outside Tunisia have concluded that proposals for the regulation of the country’s media do not meet international standards. Draft clauses in the original text of the new constitution called for the establishment of an “independent media regulatory body,” but chosen by the National Constituent Assembly (ANC).

This raised fears that the government’s past bad practice in appointing staff and pressurising the media would simply be enshrined by the new body. All regulatory powers over the media, including the governing bodies of public media, must have guaranteed independence.

In frustration at the practices of government Labidi and his fellow members of INRIC decided to end its activities on 4 July, having waited in vain for a response from the government since 30 April, when it released its final report and recommendations. A commission of human rights experts on the independent Committee for the Achievement of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition (HIROR) followed suit on 24 August.

Another reason for Labidi’s resignation was a draft amendment proposed by a minor political party to the Decree 115-2011, designed to act as a new press code. The code, which is supposed to ensure freedom of press, has been approved by parliament but not yet implemented. The proposed amendments would introduce jail time for insulting sacred icons and public figures, among other restrictions.

Meanwhile, the Internet remains partly free in practice but the repressive legal framework governing web usage under Ben Ali remains. In May the Minister for Human Rights and Transitional Justice Samir Dilou told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that “the Internet was a partner in the revolution so the government would not punish it.” The reality has been a little less straightforward.

The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), the web censor under Ben Ali, was ordered by a military tribunal in 2011 to filter five Facebook pages criticising the army. In early 2012, despite the objections of the new ATI leadership, there were calls for a blanket ban on access to pornographic websites, eventually overruled by Tunisia’s highest court.

The existing 1997 Telecommunications Decree and ‘Internet regulations’, make Internet Service Providers (ISPs) liable for third-party content without exceptions – in breach of international conventions. They also require ISPs to monitor and take down content considered contrary to public order and ‘good morals’.

ISPs were still required to submit a list of subscribers on a monthly basis and ban use of encryption tools without prior state approval. The proposed press code – with its powers to bring criminal defamation charges and overly broad penalties for ‘hate speech’ – can be applied to online publishers as well. However, as the cases of bloggers Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji and Jaber Ben Abdallah Majri illustrated, ordinary public order law from the Ben Ali era can suffice to silence critical opinion.

Under the former regime, ATI used to use online censorship, but in an interview with ATI CEO Moez Chakchouk, he said the technology, installed in 2006, had not been extended or updated since 2011 and had been essentially abandoned in the face of a 50% increase in online traffic in Tunisia during that year.

“If the state wants to draw red lines for net freedom, it should first establish an independent authority to regulate the internet. Internet legislation should not be drafted without a regulation authority that creates balance, between public and individual interests. The state has the right to protect and eliminate defamation, but citizens have the right to freely express themselves. So we need balance, and if the government cannot create such balance, a conflict of interests will occur.”

Constitutional reform

The Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) is currently preparing a third version of the draft constitution, expected in the spring of 2013. The current version, published at the end of 2012 carries several articles that threaten human rights in general, raise questions about the Tunisia’s commitment to international conventions long ratified by the country and lack of sufficient guarantees for the independence of the judiciary. It also carries some improvements, such as the removal of articles that threatened freedom of expression by criminalizing “normalization” with Israel and clearer language to preserve equal rights for women in Tunisia.

The draft lacks – and would significantly benefit from – a defined section to serve as a Bill of Rights, and placed at the heart of the new Constitution. The constitution must provide a clear right for people to hold opinions and that right should not be subject to any restrictions.

The bill should define freedom of expression broadly and including the historic international right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, while ensuring that this guarantee covers all types of expression and all modes of communication. The only legitimate restrictions on free expression must be determined by law and are necessary only when respecting the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security, public order or public health.

The constitution also should provide a legal mechanism to ensure that there is a right to freedom of information and there must be clear guarantees for freedom of religion for all people.

The constitution draft also fails to address the worst abuses of the Ben Ali regime in its relations with the judiciary. The guarantees for the independence of the judiciary are too limited; there is lack of clarity over the right for judges’ security of tenure and too much government authority over the definition of the conditions under which a judge can be dismissed.

An independent judiciary is key to institutionalising free expression in Tunisia and preventing people from being harassed or jailed for exercising their right to free expression,” said Riadh Guerfali, a co-founder of the participatory website Nawaat, a partner of Index on Censorship. “Ending impunity for those who attack free expression is critical as well.”

Some observers have raised questions about Article 15, which suggest that international conventions that Tunisia has ratified are only compulsory if they do not “contravene the constitution” in an unspecified way.

Under the Vienna Convention, when an international treaty had been ratified or approved it will become binding in domestic law. But the language as it stands may tempt judges and legislators to disregard these treaties on the pretext that they contradict the new constitution, Human Rights Watch said.

The importance of an independent judiciary was underlined by Guerfali, himself a lawyer. “Beyond formal guarantees of the right to freedom of expression and information in the Constitution and international instruments, what is key in today’s democracies is the case law.

“Indeed, in front of notions as vague as public morals, national security and public order, precedents established over decades have enabled the protection of fundamental rights. Yet, in Tunisia, such positive case law is lacking. There is no doubt that legal instruments should be set to prevent vague notions to undermine otherwise protected fundamental rights, including that to freedom of expression.”

— Reported by Rohan Jayasekera, Ghias Aljundi and Yousef Ahmed

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By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.