Tunisia: Free speech, press freedom and the right to know threatened by new Health Ministry plans

Tunisia: Free speech, press freedom and the right to know threatened by new Health Ministry plans - Media

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Ministry of Health to withdraw the memorandum regarding how the Ministry of Health employees deal with the media and social media, for it contradicts several rights and freedoms stipulated in the constitution and the national legislation.

On 16 April 2021, the Minister of Health issued a memo informing all of the Ministry’s employees that only a specific list of persons within the Ministry and its affiliated structures are authorized to speak publicly inwritten, audiovisual and social media formats related to the situation of the pandemic. The memo stipulates that all other employees must obtain prior permission from the Minister of Health before speaking to the media or posting on social media.

This memo contradicts the provisions of Article 31 of the Constitution, which prohibits the exercise of prior censorship of freedom of expression and the media. Requiring employees of the Ministry of Health to obtain prior permission from the Minister of Health before speaking with the media or publishing on social media is a dangerous violation of their constitutional right to freedom of expression through all means they deem appropriate.

The memo also violates the right of access to information of the Tunisia public, for the requirement that Ministry of Health employees obtain the minister’s prior permission before speaking with the media or social media would lead to the disruption of citizens’ right of access to information, which is a constitutional right, enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution, as well as in the Law No. 22 of 2016 dated 24 March 2016 on the right to access information. The Minister of Health’s memo also contradicts international standards, as the Human Rights Committee affirmed in its General Comment No. 34 of 2011 “To give effect to the right of access to information, States parties should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest. States parties should make every effort to ensure easy, prompt, effective and practical access to such information”.

Third, the decision taken by the Minister of Health is considered unnecessary in a democratic society and would restrict the freedom of the press in contravention of the requirements of Article9 of Decree-Law No. 115 of 2011 on freedom of the press, printing and publishing, which prohibits “the imposition of any restrictions that hinder the freedom of information circulation, barrier to equal opportunities for the various media institutions to access to information, or disrupt the citizen’s right to a free, pluralistic, and transparent media.”

Finally, the Minister of Health’s memo was issued based on Circular No. 4 of 16 January 2017, issued by the President of the Government relating to the organization of the work of the information and communication units under the ministries and public institutions, which raised concern from civil society organizations and media, due to its non-conformity with the provisions of Law No. 22 of 2016 dated 24 March 2016 on the right to access information. ARTICLE 19 fears that these administrative texts will be used to restrict rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the constitution and legislation, which is a very dangerous matter that would prevent the actual enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, press and access to information.

As a result of the aforementioned breaches, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Ministry of Health to withdraw the unconstitutional memo, and calls on the Tunisian government as well to expressly abolish Circular No. 4 of 16 January 2017 explicitly.

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