ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the prosecution of Tunisian cartoonist Tawfiq Omran for his publication of satirical cartoons. We recall that satirical criticism, expressed in an artistic and creative manner, including directed at political and governmental actors, falls squarely within the realm of protected speech and the exercise of the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of creativity, as enshrined in Articles 37 and 49 of the Tunisian Constitution.
On the evening of Thursday 21 September 2023, the well-known cartoonist was arrested for interrogation before being released at 2 am on Friday 22 September 2023, and summoned to appear for interrogation again before the Public Prosecutor of the Court of First Instance in Tunis on Monday 25 September.
Omran told the media and posted on his social media page that he had not received any summons prior to his arrest, and that two police officers security personnel arrived at his home on Thursday evening and took him to a police station in Megrine (the southern suburbs of the capital, Tunis), where he was initially questioned about a bounced check but later subjected to inquiries regarding his cartoons. Subsequently, he was transferred to the Bouchoucha detention centre before the Public Prosecution authorised his release in the early hours of Friday 22 September.
On 17 September, Omran published two satirical cartoons on his page ‘Omran Cartoons’ related to the recent visit of the Tunisian Prime Minister to a school on the 15 September school opening. The cartoons humorously highlighted the Prime Minister’s confused and incoherent speech.
In response to media reports, the Presidency of the Government issued a statement in the evening of Friday 22 September, , affirming that if the investigation pertained to a caricature, “the assessment of the Prime Ministry is that such inquiries lack justification, as freedom of creativity is explicitly safeguarded in Article 49 of the Constitution, adopted on 25 July 2022”. The statement also alluded to a deliberate attempt to “conflate freedom of expression and freedom of creativity with the offence of issuing a bounced check”.
Anas Kadousi, one of the cartoonist’s lawyers, said in a statement to the media: “The charges have not yet been formally filed by the Public Prosecution, as the case remains in the preliminary investigative stage. However, the subject under scrutiny relates to ‘offending others through public telecommunications networks’ as defined by Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code“. This article carries penalties against “any person who intentionally offends others or disturbs their comfort through public telecommunications of imprisonment ranging from one to two years along with a fine of one hundred to one thousand dinars “.
ARTICLE 19 had previously urged Tunisian authorities to repeal Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code due to its adverse impact on the right to freedom of expression in the digital sphere. It is viewed as an authoritarian tool that enables strategic legal actions aimed at curtailing freedom of expression and inhibiting participation in public debate.
ARTICLE 19 emphasises that the role of a political cartoonist is fundamentally one of satirical criticism, using artistic means to express opinions and shed light on the negative attitudes, discourses, and consequences stemming from political authority decisions across social, economic, political, cultural, and other aspects of life. This contributes to shaping public opinion and fostering collective awareness.
The arrest of Tawfik Omran is part of a series of recent arrests involving several journalists, bloggers, lawyers, and politicians who have expressed critical viewpoints or opposition to the policies, decisions, and practices of Tunisian authorities.
ARTICLE 19 calls for an immediate halt to the prosecution of Tawfiq Omran for exercising his rights to expression and creativity. We further urge the dismissal of all charges against him, as they run counter to the protections guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution and international treaties ratified by the Tunisian state.