XPA 2017 country profile: Tunisia

Civic Space 6 min read
ARTICLE 19

Population:

Approx. 11 million

System of Government:

Semi-presidential

Legislative Structure:

The legislative branch consists of the Assembly of the Representative of the People, with 217 seats. The first elections occurred on 26 October 2014.

Freedom of expression: key instruments and laws

The 2011 revolution was a milestone in Tunisian history. The adoption of a democratic constitution and the first legislative and presidential elections in 2014, after decades of dictatorship, were some of the revolution’s key achievements. Since then, these gains have been cemented further: Tunisia has one of the most active civil society in the region and continues to play an important role in promoting freedom of expression and government transparency.

A number of progressive laws in conformity with international human rights standards have been adopted in the last two years, including a law protecting whistleblowers and a law on access to information. However, other critical legislation and policies proposed by the government have been evidently regressive, countering the progress made since the revolution and potentially putting at risk the new and still fragile democratic system.

Major political developments 2016 /17 

Draft legislation which could criminalise the work of journalists, whistleblowers, human rights defenders, and others who criticise authorities (particularly the police), is widely viewed as inconsistent with international human rights standards. In addition draft legislation exists that would allow security forces to use inappropriate force during protest, and if implemented would place journalists and civilians at-risk.

In a January 2017, a Government Circular was issued and subsequently removed, which indicated that the government intended to prevent officers in ministries and public institutions from making statements without the explicit authorisation of the relevant political authority.

Despite the removal of the circular, the practice of prior approval is contrary to the law but remains deeply engrained within the public administration. Such a move would reverse the progress made in transparency and accountability and pose a serious threat to the spirit of the law on access to information. It would also violates the Constitution and international human rights standards.

Key freedom of expression issues

Back-tracking on international standards

National and international organisations have criticised a governmental project law on the audio-visual regulatory body in Tunisia, noting that it is unconstitutional and contrary to international standards.

In some cases, journalists, lawyers and civil society activists have had their rights limited and some have been subject to military trials. Tunisian military courts continue to handle cases involving civilians, including journalists, bloggers and lawyers under Article 91 of the Code of Military Justice, which criminalises offenses against the dignity, reputation, or morale of the army. Such practices are contrary to international standards regarding the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression.

In 2011 a new progressive Association Law replaced the old regressive law that had put civil society under decades of oppression. However, the government is currently discussing a new law that put an end to many of the gains made since the revolution (related to public funding and administrative irregularities; provisions of external funding; criteria for license and legal status).

Civil society organisations and human rights defenders play a key role in promoting and protecting human rights. Engagement and public scrutiny in the legislative process seeks to ensure legislation under consideration is consistent with the Constitution and international human rights standards. This scrutiny is crucial to ensure legislation does not undermine freedom of expression, particularly the freedom of journalists to access information or allow a regression on the rights won on media freedom, media regulation, and against censorship.

Prospects for change

Tunisia has taken huge steps forward in strengthening human rights during its democratic transition and provides a unique example of democracy for the region following the Arab Spring.

There have been huge advances made in its openness to allow national and international organisations to operate freely and independently, and to contribute to the promotion of fundamental rights, including by having a critical engagement with the government on legislation that might relate to, or be contrary to, international human rights commitments.

It is important that, during the still-critical transition years ahead, advancement in the recognition and fulfilment of human rights does not suffer a return to the laws, policies, and practices of the dictatorship and that legislation provides for checks and balances and the protection of human rights.

Through further strengthening the open, dynamic, critical and a well-informed civil society that is beginning to flourish, the country can build on the gains of its revolution and ensure the protection, promotion, and fulfilment of fundamental rights.