The Tunisian authorities must immediately put an end to the prosecution of two bloggers for daring to criticize the government’s approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Amnesty International said today.
Last week, two bloggers were detained and are facing several criminal charges of “insulting state officials”, “causing disturbances to the public” and defamation. They have been charged for posting videos on social media alleging that the government has failed to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially and address shortage of basic food supplies in the market amid COVID-19 pandemic.
Within the region, Tunisia enjoys a relatively high degree of political freedom. However, the past two years have seen a number of criminal prosecutions related to freedom of expression – many of which have used outdated laws from the era of ousted President Ben-Ali to prosecute critics for defamation and insulting state officials and institutions.
“The last thing the Tunisian authorities should be doing in the middle of a pandemic is arresting or prosecuting people who are critical of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The free flow of information and public trust is particularly important at this time. Those detained for expressing their views must be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Regional director for Middle East and North Africa.
“These prosecutions send the wrong signal at this time and are a significant setback for freedom of expression in the country. Questioning the government measures, criticizing flaws and shortfalls to the pandemic are not punishable crimes.”
On 13 April, blogger Anis Mabrouki posted a video on his Facebook page showing a crowd of people standing in front of the building of the closed mayor’s office in Tebourba (a town 30 km from the capital Tunis), demanding financial aid which had been promised by the government amid the COVID-19 lockdown. The next day he received a summons letter from the authorities after the mayor pressed charges against him.
According to his lawyer, Mohammed Ali Bouchiba, who was present with him at court, Anis appeared before the prosecutor on 15 April and was charged with “causing noises and disturbances to the public” and “accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without furnishing proof of guilt” under Articles 316 and 128 respectively of the Penal Code.
The misdemeanour chamber of the Court of First Instance in Manouba has refused a request from his lawyers to release him, pending trial, and set 30 April for his next hearing.
Another female blogger and political activist, Hajer Awadi, posted a video on her Facebook page on 12 April where she spoke about her documentation of the government’s corruption and poor distribution of basic foodstuff in her region, Le Kef, in the North West of Tunisia. In the video, she also alleges that the local police assaulted and threatened to arrest her and her uncle when they went to complain about corruption.
An hour after posting the video, Hajer Awadi and her uncle were arrested, according to her lawyer, who was present during her interrogation by the police. The following day both appeared before the prosecutor in the Court of First Instance of Le Kef who charged them with “insulting a civil servant” under article 125 of the penal code and “causing noises and disturbances to the public” under article 316 of the penal code. They face up to a year in prison and a fine.
“The Tunisian authorities should be working on decreasing the number of detainees held in pre-trial detention merely for expressing their views and to reduce the risk of Covid-19 whenever possible. The case of these two bloggers should stand as a stark reminder of the urgent need to reform archaic laws on the books that allow for people to face criminal prosecutions for free speech.” said Amna Guellali
Amnesty International has documented a growing trend of prosecutions of bloggers, journalists and activists using legislation that penalize peaceful speech, notably speech deemed to be offensive or defamatory not only toward individuals but also toward state institutions and speech deemed liable to disturb the public order or morality.
The Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression under Article 31. Tunisia is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which also guarantees the right to freedom of expression.