On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May and following the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on the human rights situation in Tunisia on 2 May at the UN Human Rights Council, twenty-five national and international non-governmental organisations warn that freedom of expression in Tunisia is under threat in light of repeated attempts to restrict the press, the disruption of the implementation of the access to information law, and the preparation of a government draft law which significantly reduces the powers and independence of the audiovisual media regulation body.
The undersigning NGOs warn that Tunisia continues to prosecute journalists on the basis of the Military Justice Act, the Criminal Code and other laws, rather than relying on Decree Law No. 115 of 2011 on Freedom of Press, Printing and Publishing, which provides the legal framework for resolving disputes related to press violations.
At the beginning of this year, the Government tried to circumvent the right of the press to access official data, when it issued “Circular No. 4” on January 16, 2017 and later announced its suspension on February 27, 2017 after receiving immense pressure from journalists, media and national and international organizations.
In violation of Tunisia’s Constitution, laws and international commitments, Circular No.4 prevented information and communication officers in ministries and public institutions from “making statements and announcements” or “publishing or disclosing official information or documents through media or others” without the “prior and explicit authorization” of the authorities.
During the period when Circular No. 4 was in force, some ministries, such as the Ministry of Higher Education, issued internal circulars blacklisting three media institutions, reflecting the absence of a genuine will to implement the right to access information on the ground.
On April 6, 2017, the Ministry of Interior banned the publication of a weekly newspaper, on the basis of the Emergency Law and without a judicial decision; this was the first time a paper had been censored since the fall of dictatorship on January 14, 2011.
Disruption of the implementation of the Access to Information Law
Although more than a year has elapsed since the publication of the Law on “Access to Information” in the Official Gazette (Law n.22/2016 dated 24 March 2016), it has still not been implemented. Furthermore, the “Information Access Committee” which was supposed to start operating within a maximum of one year after the issuing of the law in the Official Gazette has still not been set up.
While the Law granted public institutions six months (from the date of its publication in the Official Gazette) to create official websites, with the requirement of including guides on accessing information, many structures, such as the Presidency and the ‘Ministry in charge of relations with constitutional bodies, civil society and human rights’, still have no official websites providing access to their information as required by the Law.
The undersigning organizations express their incredulity at the sudden interruption of the election process of the “Information Access Committee” by the Assembly of People’s Representatives despite the fact that the candidates’ files had been screened last February.
The organizations fear that this disruption is deliberate, as political parties are not happy with some of the candidates and want the members of the independent committee to be selected according to political party quotas.
The NGOs call on the Assembly of People’s Representatives to take responsibility and expedite the creation of the “Information Access Committee”. They also ask the Government to issue the other implementation texts as set out in the Access to Information Law, particularly the statutes and organization chart of the Committee.
Withdrawal of the powers of the audiovisual media regulation authority
Furthermore, the organizations would like to express their concern at the Government’s proposed draft law establishing the audiovisual media regulation authority, which was prepared after a hasty consultation that did not involve experts and relevant civil society organizations, significantly reduces the powers and independence of this constitutionally-mandated body.
The organizations also express its concern that the decision to separate this law from the law on the freedom of audiovisual media, may be aimed at weakening legal protections.
The Government’s draft law removes the mandate of the audiovisual media regulation body to impose financial sanctions on audio-visual media which violate laws, and to issue opinions on nominations made by the Government in the audiovisual domain, opening the way for appointments based on political allegiance and direction of public media according to the whims of influential political parties. This is particularly worrying in light of the direct appointment by the government of Directors at two public radio stations in April, in contravention of Decree No. 116 of 2011 on freedom of audiovisual communication and the creation of HAICA.
The submission of the Government’s draft law coincided with a campaign of distortion and misinformation recently targeting HAICA, fueled by some media outlets and political parties, raising fears about the intention to replace the current regulation authority before the next elections scheduled in December with a new one that will not be capable of effectively monitoring media coverage of the next electoral campaign, due to its newness and its significantly weakened powers.
Tunisia was downgraded one place to 97 out of 180 countries on the recently published Reporters without Borders’ 2017 Press Freedom Index, indicating the failure of the Tunisian authorities to guarantee of freedom of expression, in clear contrast to the ideal image Tunisia promotes for itself in international and human rights forums.
Amnesty International Tunisia
Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia
Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN)
National anti-corruption network
Reporters Without Borders
The Democratic Lab
The National Union of Tunisian Journalists
The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights
Tunisia Press Freedom Centre
Tunisia Tomorrow For Development
Tunisian Association for Governance and Social Accountability
Tunisian Association for the Fight Against Corruption (ATLUC)
Tunisian Association of Public Controllers
Tunisian Association to Defend Academic Values
Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES)
Tunisian Observatory for the Independence of the Magistracy
Tunisian Organization Against Torture
Tunisian Women Research and Development Association
Yaqadha (Vigilance) Association for Democracy and the Civic State