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 2011, leading authorities to enforce provisions of the penal code that appear to contradict 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 (see section 1.c., Improvements), reorganization of Judicial Police and moving the Office of the Judicial Police under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, and applying a more refined definition of flagrante delicto, obvious offense. As of October 2019, the independent committee of experts in charge of amending these two criminal codes submitted revisions to the CPP to the Justice Ministry, enabling the ministry to prepare a draft law to parliament for review and adoption. By the end of January, the Ministry of Justice had nearly completed its efforts to revise the 1913 penal code to comply with the 2014 constitution and international human rights norms, according to representatives of the committee responsible for this process, but the revisions were pending parliamentary approval as of December.
Civil society activists continued 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 (see section 3).
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 Speech: 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.”
On November 9, Amnesty International issued a report that highlighted an increasing number of prosecutions of bloggers and Facebook users for peaceful expression of opinion online. Amnesty International examined the cases of 40 bloggers, administrators of widely followed Facebook pages, political activists, and human rights defenders, who between 2018 and 2020 had been investigated or charged or sometimes sentenced on criminal charges including defamation, insulting state institutions, and “harming” others through telecommunication networks.
For example, Amnesty International reported on April 21, that authorities arrested two bloggers for criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The first blogger, Hajer Awadi, posted a video on her Facebook page accusing local authorities in the city of Kef of corruption in the distribution of food. She claimed local police threatened her and her uncle with arrest for attempting to file a corruption complaint. The second blogger, Anis Mabrouki, live-streamed a video on Facebook showing a crowd gathered in front of the closed mayor’s office in Tebourba, Manouba governorate, demanding the distribution of government-promised social assistance. The local mayor filed a complaint against Mabrouki for criticizing a government official, although Mabrouki did not include commentary in his video. According to Amnesty International, Awadi received a 75-day suspended prison sentence. On April 30, the Court of Appeals acquitted Mabrouki.
Freedom of 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.”
Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment against journalists continued, according to human rights organizations. In its April 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 May 2019 and April 2020, the SNJT reported 193 incidents of verbal, physical assaults, and intimidation against journalists, compared with 139 the preceding year. The SNJT reported that 71 female journalists and photographers and 122 male journalists and photographers were physically or verbally assaulted. The SNJT cited public service employees as responsible for these incidents, followed by security forces and government officials. Despite the overall increase in incidents, the SNJT reported a decrease in the number of assaults against journalists by public service employees during the year, 13 compared with 34 in the previous year. The SNJT cited 10 verbal assaults by politicians against journalists.
In December, Tunisian singer Noomane Chaari posted a song online with an Israeli vocalist, calling for Arab-Israeli peace. He subsequently experienced in-person harassment and received death threats on social media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized individuals who published items counter to government guidelines or who published items deemed to defame government officials.
On August 4, the Tunis Court of Appeals reduced the prison sentence of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik from one year to an eight-month suspended sentence. He was initially sentenced in absentia in April to two years in prison on defamation charges for saying on Nessma TV before the 2019 presidential election that “in other countries, jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui would have been freed by armed citizens.” Authorities arrested Karoui after a court ordered his detention in a 2016 case involving money laundering and tax evasion charges. Without a conviction and court order specifically restricting his candidacy, Karoui remained on the ballot for the September 2019 presidential elections. Ranking second in the elections with 15.6 percent of the votes, Karoui proceeded to the runoff election in October 2019. Ben Brik appealed the court’s ruling, and on July 23, he was sentenced to one year in prison for “insulting, defaming and attacking human dignity.” Ben Brik remained in prison until a second appeal reduced his sentence to eight months suspended. Responding to the same statement, in 2019 the Higher Authority for Audiovisual Communication accused Ben Brik of incitement to hatred and violence, and the general prosecutor filed the charges against him. The Media Union reported on August 3 that Ben Brik’s health significantly deteriorated after his arrest.
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. On March 12, human rights lawyer Najet Laabidi was convicted of “insulting a public official while performing their duty” before the Military Court of First Instance and given a small fine. The trial resulted from a complaint filed by a military judge who presided over the 2015 trial of former regime officials who were prosecuted for torture. As the defense lawyer for victims of torture in this case, Laabidi flagged a number of violations during the hearing and questioned the impartiality of the military judge. The military judge subsequently filed complaints against Laabidi.
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.
On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui to six months in prison and a fine for a TikTok video that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse to comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. Chargui was charged with “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence” and “offending authorized religions.” Civil society organizations criticized the court’s decision and called on authorities to overturn Chargui’s conviction. Chargui announced through a Facebook post on August 8 that she left Tunisia to seek asylum elsewhere. Her appeal remained under court review.
There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the government ordered the suspension of all cultural festivities, including the International Carthage Festival 2020.
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.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Despite the renewal of the state of emergency law, approximately 254 protests occurred peacefully in March and April, according to Tunisian Social Observatory for Economic and Social Rights. Nearly all of these were without incident and permitted by authorities. The protests appeared to influence the Ministry of Interior’s April removal of deputy governors in Monastir, Sousse, El Kef, and Ariana and the mayors of regions in El Kef, Manouba, and Siliana for allegations of corruption.
According to a December 9 report released by the Tunisian Social Observatory under the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights), 1,025 protests were registered in November, compared with 871 in October, an increase of 18 percent. Nearly 49 percent of the overall protests recorded in November (504) were staged in southern Tunisia (East and West).
In June protesters began a sit-in at the site of the El Kamour pumping station in the southern governorate of Tataouine, demanding job creation, regional development, and implementation of the 2017 El Kamour Agreement, which ended a previous strike (see section 7.a.). Police intervened on June 21 to remove the El Kamour protesters’ tents and arrested several demonstrators, including Tarek Haddad, the spokesman for the protest’s overseeing body, the El Kamour Coordination Committee (EKCC). Haddad had been on a hunger strike since June 18. The EKCC alleged security forces used excessive force to disperse the demonstration and end the sit-in, claiming several protesters were injured. Protesters then staged a June 23 march and sit-in outside the seat of the Court of First Instance to demand Haddad’s release, referencing a provision of the 2017 agreement which provided that demonstrators should not be prosecuted. Haddad and other protesters were released June 24. After a number of protesters corroborated the allegations of abuse, Amnesty International on July 27 called for an independent investigation into the actions of the security forces, but as of December, no charges have been filed against security officials. The government signed an agreement with protesters at El Kamour on November 7, ending the sit-in there.
Freedom of Association
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.
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. Parts of the Tunisia-Libya border opened on November 14 after an eight-month closure due to COVID-19.
In-country Movement: The Administrative Court of Tunis published a ruling on June 6 stating the Ministry of Interior’s “S17” border control watch list, which requires additional screening at border checkpoints on security-related grounds, had no legal basis and that the government should issue a law authorizing it to restrict an individual’s travel rather than relying on an internal ministry directive. The court issued a similar decision in 2018. The court based both rulings on Article 49 of the constitution that states the government may only impose limitations on the exercise of an individual’s constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms through law, as well as international conventions and treaties to which the country is a signatory. While there is no official data on the number of individuals on the list, in 2018 local NGO Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (ODL) estimated it included more than 100,000 names. Although the list was established to inform border agents of these individuals’ potential travel outside of the country, civil society groups reported that the Ministry of Interior continued to restrict some individuals’ internal travel as well. Amnesty International, HRW, and local human rights organizations expressed concern with the S17 list and the lack of transparency around its implementation. The Ministry of Interior, in coordination with civil society, ensured individuals were not restricted from internal travel. Additionally, the ministry facilitated avenues for recourse for individuals asserting they were wrongfully included on the S17 list to have their name removed. Amnesty International reported in August that the S17 list was primarily used to regulate external travel and less frequently used to regulate internal movement.
On February 19, the legislative Rights and Freedoms Committee held a hearing with representatives of the Ministry of Interior on urban crime issues and S17 procedures. Ministry of Interior representatives stated that the S17 list is a preventative measure used internationally to fight not only terrorism but also trafficking in persons and drug-related crimes. Ministry of Interior representatives stated that several guarantees were put in place to protect the rights of citizens, including the possibility for those on the list to appeal within the Ministry of Interior’s administration or before the judiciary. Those wrongly included on the list had the option of obtaining an identity card to limit any confusion.
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 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.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
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 5,406 person of concern (2,508 refugees and 2,781 asylum seekers), a fivefold increase since 2018.