Tunisia: Freedom of expression must be protected in the fight against terrorism

Tunisia: Freedom of expression must be protected in the fight against terrorism - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that new measures would be implemented following the terrorist attacks on Mount Chaambi on 17 July, during which 15 soldiers were killed. In a decision dated 19 July, the government ordered the immediate closure of unauthorized radio and television stations, mosques and social media pages, as well as the suspension of all activities by organizations deemed to have links with terrorism.

The announcement that “any individual, group, party or institution that calls into question military and security institutions” will be prosecuted, opens the door to self-censorship and will lead journalists and Tunisian citizens to avoid expressing legitimate criticisms of the authorities’ response to the terrorism. ARTICLE 19 also believes that this amounts to a breach of Tunisia’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression.

“This measure affects the fundamental rights of citizens and journalists who should not be penalized for their criticisms of security and military institutions,” Project Director for ARTICLE 19 in Tunisia, Saloua Ghazouani Oueslati, said.

ARTICLE 19 believes that these measures are likely to undermine freedom of expression, association and worship in Tunisia. In particular, the language used in the government decision, such as “discourse that is seditious”, “inflammatory” or which “denigrates the army or police”, is much too vague and ambiguous. Such language gives far too much discretion to the authorities who may well misuse it in the name of combatting terrorism, to the detriment of freedom of expression.

“Tunisians have successively adopted a progressive constitution and managed the transition well. It is essential that they remain vigilant to ensure that their rights and freedoms are protected in accordance with the provisions of the new 2014 constitution,” Saloua Ghazouani added.

ARTICLE 19 is surprised at the government’s unilateral decision to immediately close two unauthorized radio and television stations suspected of being implicated in terrorist acts. ARTICLE 19 believes that such a measure should only be taken in close consultation with the independent audiovisual communication authority (Haute Autorité Indépendante de la Communication Audiovisuelle – HAICA). According to decree law 116-2011, HAICA is responsible for investigating cases of violent discourse in order to decide whether the stations in questions should be completely suspended.

Specific pages on social media should also only be withdrawn following a court ruling. In an emergency, the police must seek authorization from a court within 48 hours at most following the closure of the pages in question in order to confirm that such measures are necessary.

ARTICLE 19 reiterates its condemnation of calls for violence and terrorist attacks. We call on all actors within the government, parties and civil society to work together to address the difficult security situation while adhering to the principles of democracy and the existence of a civilian State in Tunisia. ARTCLE 19 also calls for the rights and freedoms that are crucial for preserving national security to be respected.