Violence against journalists and legislative threats to freedom of expression: priorities for 2015
On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (3rd May), ARTICLE 19, Reporters without Borders, Yakadha association, the Center of Tunis for Press Freedom (CTLP), Community Media Solutions (CM Solutions), the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network , the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC), and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) are warning of the numerous challenges facing the Tunisian authorities with regard to protecting freedom of expression and information.
The start of the year was characterized by an upsurge in abuses of freedom of the press. The significant number of violent attacks against journalists and bloggers, together with the restrictions on freedom of expression and information provided in a number of draft bills of law, are of serious concern.
The signatory organizations therefore wish to make known their concern at the increasing pressures to which journalists and bloggers are being subjected and to remind the authorities of the need to protect their physical and legal security. In this context and following the announcement of the execution of Sofiane Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari by a representative of the Libyan Ministry of Justice on Wednesday 29 April, it is urgent that light is shed on the fate of the two journalists from First TV channel, missing in Libya since 8 September 2014.
The signatory organizations are also calling for a review of freedom-destroying legislative bills that fly in the face of freedom of expression and the press, such as the draft bill of law on terrorism and the prohibition of money laundering, and the draft bill of law on the suppression of attacks on the armed forces. These texts represent a real threat to the establishment of a free, pluralist and independent media environment, particularly when covering topical events related to the war on terror.
Finally, the above organizations wish to remind the authorities that they must respect the guarantees set out in Articles 31 and 32 of the Constitution, along with Tunisia’s international commitments with regard to freedom of expression and information.
1/ Increasing violence against journalists and bloggers:
More than 30 attacks have been committed against journalists since the start of the year, most of them in the regions. The forces of law and order are often primarily responsible, particularly with regard to journalists/bloggers covering demonstrations.
On 18 February, six journalists from the national TV station, Al Moutawasset TV and Shems FM radio were insulted, beaten and threatened with weapons by national guard officers in Kasserine while covering the Boulaaba terrorist attack.
In addition, several convictions, along with the opening of further criminal proceedings, have been noted. In January, the blogger Yassine Ayari, a civilian, was sentenced to six months in prison by a military court, on the basis of the Military Justice Code, for causing harm to the military by publishing a number of status updates on his Facebook page. The blogger was conditionally released on 16 April 2015.
That same month, the blogger and Jawhara FM correspondent, Mounir Chedli, was prosecuted on the basis of Decree Law No. 2011-115 and the Telecommunications Code. The complaint made against him by the Governor of Kef was for defamation, following the publication of Facebook statuses criticizing the slow implementation of development reforms in the region. Sentence is due to be passed on 30 April.
For her part, the Radio Kef journalist, Hana Medfaï, was prosecuted under Articles 55 and 66 of Decree Law No. 2011-115. She was accused of defamation following comments made by one of the guests on a program she was hosting on pedophilia. The case was dismissed last March, after several hearings.
It is also important to remember that there has been no reliable information on the fate of the two Tunisian journalists from the First TV channel, Sofiane Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, who disappeared in Libya on 8 September 2014.
Given the general deterioration in the climate for the media, the signatory organizations are calling for an end to impunity for violations committed against journalists and bloggers. This impunity will not disappear until all allegations of violence against journalists have been fully investigated and the courts have condemned all outbursts, bringing those responsible for acts of violence to justice and systematically applying the most protective regime for journalists and bloggers when ruling on press issues.
2/ Worrying legislative bills threaten freedom of expression and information:
In March and April 2015, the government submitted two draft bills of law to Parliament, the first relating to the war on terrorism and the prohibition of money laundering (26 March) and the second on suppressing acts of violence against the armed forces (8 April).
These two legislative bills have given rise to serious concerns among journalists, bloggers and civil society as a number of the provisions are likely to restrict freedom of information in Tunisia very seriously.
The anti-terrorist bill, for example, poses a serious threat to the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources (Articles 35 and 36).
Moreover, the bill’s use of vague and ambiguous terminology with regard to terrorist offences, such as “justifying terrorism”, leaves the door open to highly subjective interpretation. This could result in unacceptable pressure being placed on the media when covering issues related to alleged terrorist activity or the authorities’ attitude to these activities, or even when giving critical opinions on government policy.
The draft bill of law on suppressing violence against the armed forces opens the door to extremely serious violations of freedom of expression. By outlining heavy penalties for “contempt” of the armed forces, Article 12 allows for the widespread suppression of any opinion that is critical of them. This kind of freedom-destroying law can only encourage a return to censorship and self-censorship.
The above organizations recall that any restriction of freedom of expression must be taken with full respect for the principles of international law in terms of its legality, the legitimacy of the aim pursued with the restrictive measure, and the proportionality of the restrictive measure in relation to the aim pursued.
The above organizations emphasize the essential role of an independent judicial authority in prior and retrospective monitoring of proceedings.
3/ Challenges for the new legal framework on the press and audiovisual communications:
In application of the Constitution of January 2014, Decree Laws No. 2011-115 and No. 2011-116, relating to freedom of the press and of audiovisual communications respectively, are to be replaced by new organic laws governing the media.
The drafting of this new legal framework offers an opportunity to remedy a number of deficiencies in these decrees.
The above organizations emphasize that it is essential for the different media sector actors to reach a consensus on the main relevant amendments to Decree Laws 115 and 116. If a draft bill of law were to be submitted by civil society, this would improve its chances of being adopted by the Assembly of Representatives of the People.
This new draft bill of law will need to include legal guarantees that ensure the independence of the constitutional regulatory body for audiovisual communication, the establishment of a self-regulating mechanism for the press and the sustainability of the community media, as they contribute to a pluralist media landscape.
The above organizations also recall the importance of the right of access to information as a catalyst of freedom of expression and information.
The draft organic bill on the right of access to information is currently being considered by the Assembly of Representatives. The signatory organizations urge the legislators to take into consideration the recommendations made during talks with civil society, particularly with regard to improving the proactive dissemination of information, amending articles referring to the sanctions regime and clearly and accurately defining the areas that are exempt from the right of access to information.