a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press and other media. The constitution provides for freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information, and publication. The government did not always respect these rights. President Saied’s imposition in 2021 of exceptional measures and decrees issued by the president during the year restricted freedom of expression, and journalists, activists, and politicians were prosecuted for speech related to and critical of the president. An independent press and robust civil society contributed to an environment generally conducive to this freedom, but independent journalists raised increasing concerns regarding the year concerning potential threats to freedom of expression, including press freedom.
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.” NGOs stated the penal code and military justice codes were used to target journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists for criticism of the president, the government, or security forces. 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.”
Activists expressed concern regarding government interference with media and the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few political parties or families. In its sixth annual report, issued in November, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) described the year as the most dangerous for journalists since SNJT began reporting on this question in 2017. In March, Human Rights Watch reported more than 20 prosecutions of bloggers, journalists, and others since 2017 on charges related to their peaceful speech.
On March 20, President Saied issued a Decree Law 14 criminalizing the deliberate spread of “false or incorrect news” that could cause economic harm for which conviction is punishable by a prison sentence of 10 years to life. On September 16, President Saied issued Decree Law 54 ostensibly to regulate cybercrimes and misinformation; however, civil society, international organizations, political figures, and independent journalists warned the law imperiled freedom of expression. The law criminalizes the use of information systems to publish or circulate false information that “infringes on the rights of others or jeopardizes public safety or national defense or spreads terror among the population” or with the aim of “defaming others, tarnishing their reputations, or causing them financial and moral harm.” Penalties for such offenses are up to five years in prison and a 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($15,600) fine, with the penalties doubled if the person is a public official. As of November, the government opened at least five criminal investigations under the cybercrime decree law for conduct comprising the exercise of freedom of expression.
During the year, authorities prosecuted several individuals in response to content published online that was critical of security forces or the government, including bloggers and journalists. The issuance of Decree Law 54 on cybercrime and misinformation raised concern among civil society organizations (CSOs) and members of the media including journalists over the prosecution of online speech. Citizens continued throughout the year to actively use social media platforms to organize social movements and peaceful protests; however according to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom on the Net, online self-censorship increased since July 2021, as both journalists as well as internet and social media users sought to avoid retaliation for certain kinds of speech, particularly any criticism of the president, security forces, or government bodies.
In February a military court sentenced independent MP and blogger Yassine Ayari in absentia to 10 months in prison under the Military Justice Code, for Facebook posts criticizing the president.
On March 18, the National Guard’s Counterterrorism (CT) Unit detained and interrogated Radio Mosaique FM journalist Khelifa Guesmi for publishing and refusing to reveal his sources for a story covering the dismantling of a terrorist group in Kairouan. Authorities charged Guesmi under the country’s counterterrorism law. The CT Unit also interrogated journalist Amal Manai and Houcine Dabbabi, Mosaique FM’s leading editor in Kairouan, in the same case. On March 25, a judge decided not to press charges against Manai and Dabbabi. On November 29, the Tunis Court of First Instance sentenced Guesmi to one year in prison. His defense team announced it would appeal the sentence.
Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment against journalists continued, according to human rights organizations and independent journalists. Some individuals, including human rights and online activists, encountered online harassment and backlash, particularly for social media postings related to political matters or when mobilizing protests. In a report issued in November, the SNJT reported 232 verbal and physical attacks against journalists from October 2021 until October, 88 of which were against women journalists.
In January police reportedly physically assaulted French journalist Mathieu Galtier as he attempted to record an arrest. Police allegedly beat Galtier, sprayed him with tear gas at close range, and confiscated his press identification card and cellphone. Galtier received medical attention at the scene and police later returned his belongings, except for his cellphone’s memory card, which included photos and videos from the protests. There was no information available regarding whether the government investigated or held any police officers accountable in this case, and no indication of any justification offered by police for refusing to return Galtier’s cellphone memory card.
On April 14, police interrogated journalist Chahrazad Akacha for “disturbing others on social media platforms.” Her interrogation came after she posted on Facebook accusations police were harassing her in retaliation for her accusations against the minister of interior. On April 12, the Court of First Instance in Tunis postponed a separate criminal case brought against Akacha for alleged defamation of the Ministry of Interior and harming national security. On March 17, Akacha posted an article accusing Minister of Interior Charfeddine of corruption; the minister responded by personally filing a defamation lawsuit against Akacha. Since then, Akacha has alleged police forces have harassed her in retaliation.
On July 22, the SNJT President, Mohamed Yassine Jelassi, was injured while participating in a protest against the July 25 referendum. The International Federation of Journalists reported security forces sprayed Yassine Jelassi at close range with nerve gas. Following the incident, the SNJT issued a statement condemning the attack and called for the Ministry of Interior to investigate what the SNJT described as arbitrary security practices. There was no information available on if the government investigated these allegations (see section 2.b.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government sought criminal penalties against members of the media that published items deemed to defame government officials or impact national security. There was no censorship of websites except for those linked to terrorist organizations.
On April 2, the SNJT held a national public strike to protest what union officials described as the president’s “attempts to control public media.” The SNJT issued several demands, among them: filling vacant leadership positions in Tunis-Afrique-Press wire service and the National Television and National Radio; a balanced, independent and pluralistic editorial line in accordance with the National Television’s status as a public institution; activation of previous agreements between the SNJT and public media institutions that provide for the rights of journalists; and initiating an immediate rescue operation to save the Snipe-La Presse printing house from the threat of bankruptcy and closure. The SNJT also called for cancellation of all disciplinary measures imposed by the National Television’s interim chief executive officer (CEO) against a National Television journalist for participating in SNJT-led protests earlier in the month. SNJT criticized the action as violating the worker’s right to strike. In addition, the SNJT called for the publication of the full text of the joint framework agreement for journalists in the official gazette which would enter the agreement into force. The agreement among the government and the SNJT, the General Media Union (affiliated with the UGTT), and the Newspaper Owners Association is the legal framework to regulate the sector and provide for independence, journalistic freedoms, financial and social benefits, union rights, and professional development.
As of November, the headquarters in Tunis of the independent news organization Al-Jazeera remained closed and its journalism licenses have not been renewed after security forces entered their offices in July 2021 and ordered staff to vacate the premises. According to Al-Jazeera reporting at the time, security forces stated they were carrying out judicial instructions. To date, Al-Jazeera has not received a copy of the warrant or judicial instructions. Al-Jazeera’s journalists continued to work from the SNJT’s headquarters and have been reporting on events across the country.
The Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication issued a 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($16,000) fine against Al-Jazeera’s Tunis office for publicizing on July 12, a poll related to the July 25 constitutional referendum. The authority announced that by sharing the polling information on a broadcast, Al-Jazeera violated the electoral law that prohibits publishing polling information during the referendum campaign.
Libel/Slander Laws: Various civil society organizations expressed concern regarding the use of criminal libel laws to stifle freedom of expression. Many media actors and activists asserted the law did not go far enough to protect freedom of expression and of the press and did not comply with the country’s international obligations.
Business News CEO Nizar Bahloul informed media that on November 15, investigators questioned him for an hour based on a November 10 Business News article that analyzed Prime Minister Bouden’s performance during the prior 13 months. Although not the author of the article, Bahloul, as CEO, could face criminal charges of “defamation, publication of false information, and promoting false allegations against public officials and insulting the Prime Minister” if convicted under the new decree law on cybercrime and misinformation, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and up to 100,000 Tunisian dinars ($32,000) fine as the article pertains to a public official. Journalists, media, and CSOs criticized Bahloul’s police interrogation as an attack on freedom of expression and press. The Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Owners and the SNJT issued formal statements expressing solidarity with Bahloul. As of year’s end, authorities had not brought any criminal charges against Bahloul.
National Security: Authorities cited laws to protect national security to arrest or punish critics of the government. On April 7, a military court convicted MP Abdelatif Aloui and Zitouna TV host Ameur Ayed on allegations they had harmed state security by insulting and criticizing the president during an episode of Ayed’s Hassad 24 program and sentenced them to three months in prison and four months in prison respectively. Both defendants filed for an appeal.
On September 11, Ghassen Ben Khalifa, activist and editor in chief of Inhiyaz website, was released pending trial following his arrest on September 6 based on terrorism-related charges. According to the Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoners Solidarity Network, Khalifa’s lawyers asserted there was no evidence for the charges. The SNTJ states the arrest was part of a pattern of using counterterrorism laws to intimidate journalists and activists. On September 9, dozens of journalists marched in solidarity with Khalifa in central Tunis.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Media: On February 6, during a demonstration in Tunis members of the Ministry of Interior’s Press Department joined other security officials to provide security for journalists and facilitate their reporting. According to press, this was the first time this unit had been present during demonstrations.
On February 21, the SNJT and the Ministry of Interior resumed cooperation, suspended in 2021, through a joint three-day training course bringing together journalists and ministry security personnel from the Directorate of Intervention Units. The training course focused on standards for both journalists and law enforcement officers regarding freedom of press, the right to information, and protecting journalists covering events that involve security forces.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, although there were some obstacles to access, limits on content, and abuses of user rights, according to Freedom House. There were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without legal authority.
According to Freedom House, in March, members of the dissolved parliament were blocked from an online meeting conducted on two communications platforms.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for the right of peaceful assembly and the government generally did respect it.
On January 14, approximately 1,500 individuals demonstrated in central Tunis against the president’s July 2021 exceptional measures, including his dissolution of parliament and establishment of a state of emergency. NGOs, the SNJT, and INPT condemned police tactics at this demonstration, including assaults on protesters and journalists and the use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. Media also reported that on January 19, one protester died at a hospital. The public prosecutor announced the same day that it had launched an investigation into the death; at year’s end, the investigation continued.
On July 22, the National Campaign to Thwart the Referendum (an opposition bloc of five leftist and center-left political parties comprised of the Democratic Current, Ettakattol, al-Joumhouri, the Workers’ Party, and al-Qotb) organized a protest in downtown Tunis joined by civil society activists unaffiliated with the group. According to press reports, police used pepper spray and batons to disperse 100-150 protesters. In a press statement, the Ministry of Interior accused protesters of advancing towards the ministry headquarters, removing security barriers, and attacking security personnel, including throwing stones, water bottles, and banners at police and injuring 20 officers. The ministry also released a video of the confrontations. NGOs and journalists reported 11 individuals, including civil society activists, were briefly detained. The SNJT, whose president was injured in the protests (see section 2.a.), condemned the police response to protesters and called for investigations into “the arbitrary security practices.” Lawyers without Borders in Tunisia, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), LTDH, and Tunisian Association of Democratic Women also condemned the use of force against protesters. There was no information available on the government’s efforts to investigate these allegations.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for the right of freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it. Religious minority groups reported extreme administrative delays and lack of government response during the year on processing their legal association applications; some applications dated as far back as 2017.
On February 24, President Saied announced he intended to issue a decree restricting CSOs including prohibiting foreign funding, stating “Nongovernmental organizations must be prevented from accessing external funds…and we will do that.” In January purported amendments to the law regulating civil society, which would have unduly restricted CSOs’ activities and grant the government greater power to monitor and potentially dissolve the organizations, were leaked. As of the end of the year, the president had not issued a decree changing the law.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these related rights. In 2021, President Saied reportedly authorized the use of travel bans for individuals with pending legal cases against them.
In-country Movement: There are no reports of in-country movement restrictions.
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, by law the affected individuals have the right to challenge the decision, and the law sets a maximum of 14 months during which their travel may 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.
Civil society groups reported the Ministry of Interior continued to use an informal travel ban list known as the “S17” watch list established to provide for additional screening by agents at the border checkpoints for individuals’ international travel. There were no official statistics on the number of names on the list. The government has not acted on 2018 and 2020 rulings by the Administrative Court of Tunis that the list had no legal basis.
Civil society organizations and the business community alleged several members of parliament, former ministers, and businesspersons were arbitrarily prohibited from traveling following President Saied’s invocation of “exceptional measures” in July 2021. Amnesty International reported at least three MPs were prohibited from traveling despite the government’s failure to provide a court order, time frame, or justification for this restriction. Throughout the year, several former members of parliament and politicians publicly reported they were prevented from traveling abroad, despite the lack of a legal case against them, including but not limited to Fadhel Abdelkafi, Amal al-Saidi, and Rached Ghannouchi. On November 16, Fadhel Abdelkafi posted on Facebook that he learned of a travel ban against him, without any legal justification, when he was attempting to depart from the Tunis airport.