Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although government officials acknowledged a Ministry of Justice effort to review and revise the 1968 code of criminal procedures (CPP) and the 1913 Penal Code to comply with the 2014 constitution, activists and members of civil society expressed concern with the slow pace of reforms. Apart from a few discrete modifications to sections governing rape and pretrial detention, no changes have been made to the penal code since the country became a democracy, leading authorities to enforce provisions of the penal code that appear to contradict with the rights and freedoms protected in the constitution. For the CPP, however, the government has introduced notable changes, including the introduction of alternatives to incarceration and probation, reorganization of Judicial Police and moving the Office of the Judicial Police under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and a more refined definition of flagrante delicto, obvious offense. As of October the independent committee of experts in charge of amending these two criminal codes submitted revisions to the CCP to the Justice Ministry, enabling the ministry to prepare the draft law to parliament for review and adoption. The penal code project remained under review.
Civil society activists continue to cite the lack of a constitutional court as hindering efforts to align existing legislation with the 2014 constitution and international human rights norms, particularly legislation pertaining to individual freedoms and fundamental rights.
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government mainly respected this right, although there were constraints. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system contributed to an environment generally conducive to this freedom. Some media outlets and civil society expressed concerns about occasional government interference in media and the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few political parties or families.
Freedom of Expression: Public speech considered offensive to “public morals” or “public decency,” terms undefined in the law, continued to be treated as criminal acts. Provisions of the penal and telecommunications codes, for example, criminalize speech that causes “harm to the public order or public morals” or intentionally disturbs persons “in a way that offends the sense of public decency.”
HRW issued a statement on October 15 asserting, “Tunisian authorities are using laws on criminal defamation, ‘spreading false information,’ and ‘harming others via public telecommunications networks’ to prosecute people for their online commentary.” HRW cited the example of Yacine Hamdouni, a civil servant who was sentenced to six months in prison for having accused a senior security official of corruption in several social media posts. The Tunis First Instance Court that heard Hamdouni’s case convicted him on June 6 for having disseminated “false information,” accusing officials of wrongdoing without providing proof, and “harming others via public telecommunication networks.” The court sentenced him originally to one year in prison, but this sentence was reduced to six months on appeal. According to HRW, Hamdouni remained detained in the Mourneguia prison as of October.
In another example, in December 2018, the First Instance Court of Kairouan sentenced a civil society activist to three months in prison for insulting the president. The activist allegedly wrote an insulting message on a public wall in Kairouan.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Activists expressed concern about government interference in media and the concentration of media ownership. NGOs stated the penal code and military justice codes, were used to target journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists. The codes criminalize defamation, false allegations against members of an administrative or judicial authority, and attacks against the “dignity, reputation, or morale of the army.”
On March 14, the investigative judge for the First Instance Court of Tunis prevented the dissemination of two television shows investigating a public-health scandal. The judge ruled these shows would impede an ongoing investigation, but critics characterized the injunction as a violation of free speech.
Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment against journalists continued, according to human rights organizations. In its annual 2019 report, the Tunisian Union of Journalists (SNJT) warned of an increase in incitement and threats against journalists from citizens who hold media responsible for the deteriorating economic and social situation. Between February 2018 and April 2019, the SNJT reported 139 incidents of verbal, physical assaults, and intimidation against journalists. The SNJT cited public-service employees as primarily responsible for these incidents, followed by security forces and government officials. The SNJT reported an additional 39 instances of physical aggression against journalists between July and September, with the majority of these instances taking place during the September 15 elections with heads of polling stations forcibly removing media from polling stations or otherwise limiting their access to report on the electoral process.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized individuals who published items counter to government guidelines or who published items deemed to defame government officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Various civil society organizations expressed concern about the use of criminal libel laws to stifle freedom of expression. The 2017 adoption of decree laws maintaining the separation between protection of freedom of expression and regulation of the communications and media sector rolled back the prerevolution regime of censorship and secrecy; however, many media actors and activists expressed concern that these decree laws did not go far enough to protect press freedoms and freedom of expression and did not comply with the country’s international obligations.
In August 2018 authorities charged blogger Amina Mansour with violating Article 128 of the penal code and Article 86 of the telecommunications code. The former refers to accusing public officials of crimes without providing proof of their guilt, while the latter covers “willfully and knowingly harming others or disturbing them via public telecommunications networks.” Mansour had posted a message on her Facebook page accusing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of promoting “criminals in the customs agency.” The court sentenced Mansour to a suspended sentence of two months in prison. She appealed the ruling, and as of September her appeals case continued.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without legal authority. There was no censorship of websites, including those with pornographic content, with the exception of websites linked to terrorist organizations.
There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect the right of association. The state of emergency law grants the government the right to limit the right of assembly, although the government rarely applied this law during the year.
A 2018 law mandated the establishment of a more comprehensive business registration system, including the creation of a National Center for Business Registry (CNRE), with the aim to combat terrorism finance and money laundering that also included requirements for nonprofit associations to submit financial data to a newly created registry. Formally established on February 5, the CNRE is responsible for collecting and maintaining the financial and administrative data of all “economic actors,” including nonprofit associations. The center also ensures implementation of the new law and reinforces intelligence tools to eliminate economic crimes. There are CNRE offices in Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, and Nabeul that serve as independent institutions under the Prime Minister’s Office. Since February the CNRE has trained professional associations that support companies and civil society organizations to comply with the new business registration system requirements. The deadline for economic actors to register with this new system was September 10.
The law provides for the right of freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it. A 2011 law on associations eliminated penalties in the previous law, as well as the prohibition on belonging to, or serving in, an unrecognized or dissolved association. The law eased the registration procedure, reducing opportunities for government entities to hinder or delay registration. According to the 2011 law, only the judiciary has the authority to suspend or dissolve an association. Several independent monitoring organizations asserted, however, that the government delayed registration of associations through unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, at times for political reasons, a practice counter to the law.
On June 24, UN Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Nyaletsossi Voule presented the findings from an official visit to the country in September 2018, noting his concern that the inclusion of civil society organizations in the National Enterprise Registry created an unfavorable environment for civil society by imposing a new registration system on civil society organizations. The report noted there were more than 21,500 registered associations in the country.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Following the April clashes in Tripoli, the government allowed the free movement of Libyans and other nationals crossing into Tunisia.
In-country Movement: In 2018 local NGO Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (ODL) estimated that more than 100,000 individuals were on a border-control order list known as “S17.” Originally created as an “advance consultation” watch list, the S17 procedure identifies individuals requiring additional screening at border checkpoints on security-related grounds. Although the list was established to inform border agents of these individuals’ potential travel outside of the country, civil society groups report that the Ministry of Interior continued to restrict some individuals’ internal travel as well.
Based on feedback from citizens and civil society organizations, the Ministry of Interior prepared new guidelines at the end of 2018 for the application of the S17 procedure to ensure it complies with the constitution and is not used to restrict internal travel. During a February 7 parliamentary hearing, the Director General of Human Rights for the Ministry of the Interior, Mohamed Ali Khaldi, stated the judiciary reviewed 800 cases related to the application of this border-control measure and that 51 individuals successfully appealed to remove their names from this list. Khaldi also noted the ministry adopted new procedures to address concerns by individuals who believe they were mistakenly included on the list.
Amnesty International reported the Ministry of Interior’s efforts to improve its S17 procedures led to improvements in in-country movement. According to the ODL, however, despite a court order to the contrary, the Ministry of Interior refused to grant individuals access to the orders that led them to be included on the S17 list. Even in the case of a court-mandated suspension or lifting of the travel restrictions, some individuals have remained on the list.
Foreign Travel: The law requires that authorities promptly inform those affected by travel restrictions or who have had their passports seized of the reasons for these decisions. In addition the law provides that the affected individuals have the right to challenge the decision and sets a maximum of 14 months during which their travel can be restricted before requiring another court order. Human rights groups noted that authorities did not consistently apply the law and that security forces did not always respect court decisions to reverse travel restrictions. Amnesty International reported, however, that the Ministry of Interior’s efforts to improve its S17 procedures enabled some individuals on the S17 list to obtain their passports and travel internationally with a court order.
Access to Asylum: The country does not have a law for granting asylum or refugee status. The Ministry of Interior noted it coordinated regularly with UNHCR in spite of the absence of this legal framework. Pending the creation of a legal framework, UNHCR is the sole entity conducting refugee status determination. UNHCR provided assistance to registered refugees for primary medical care and, in some cases, basic education. The government granted access to schooling and basic public-health facilities for registered refugees. UNHCR reported that as of September it registered 1,489 newly registered asylum seekers and refugees, bringing to 2,729 the total of persons of concern in the country.