Amid Pandemic, Efforts to Restrict Freedom of Speech Continue

Photo of a protester outside of parliament in Bardo, Tunis, on November 13, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

While the government mandated a nightly curfew on March 18 and a lockdown for non-essential outings on March 22 in a bid to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic, the lockdown hasn’t stopped some officials from continuing efforts to curb freedom of speech.

Member of parliament Mabrouk Korchid from the Tahya Tounes party submitted a draft law to parliament on March 29 that would introduce a penalty of up to two years in prison and a 20,000 dinar fine for anyone “committing electronic libel.” The draft law, which appeared to have 46 signatures from other members of parliament, calls on fighting so-called “fake news” and also stipulates that penalties should double if the act is committed during an election period or if the perpetrator hides their identity.

The following day, March 30, two dozen civil society groups signed a letter “condemning” the position of the bill’s sponsors, arguing the bill violates constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech.

The draft law “presents a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of press,”  according to the letter, shared on the Facebook page of ADLI, the Tunisian Association Defending Liberties, which is also one of the signatories. Other signatories included many prominent rights organizations as well as the UGTT and the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT by its French acronym).

The letter goes on to say the draft presents “a clear violation of the principle of equality among citizens before the law at a time when more legislation should be adopted to foster it and to protect liberties.”

The same day the letter was released, Korchid announced on his official Facebook page that he was withdrawing the bill temporarily while several signatories withdrew their names.

Some members of parliament who were signatories subsequently claimed they had been unaware of the content of the draft bill, according to Anoir Zayani, the coordinator of the Civil Collective for Personal Freedoms. The collective is an informal alliance of more than 40 civil society groups set up in 2016.

According to Zayani, the draft law was introduced during the continuing health emergency and coronavirus lockdown so as to bypass scrutiny from civil society, but this failed because “public opinion is vigilant, the media did reporting on this, so there was a mobilization,” he told Meshkal by phone.

According to Korchid, writing on Facebook after withdrawing the bill, the draft law “does not target any honorable blogger, but only affects networks of lying, rumors and prejudice that are polluting all our lives.”

Korchid previously drew the ire of civil society in 2016 when, as the Finance Ministry’s State Secretary for State Property and Land Affairs, he froze the accounts of the civil society association managing the Jemna oasis date plantation. The association’s leadership claims that Korchid had a family connection that was party to the dispute over the land, which was behind Korchid’s decision to freeze the Association’s accounts.

“This recent attempt to restrict Tunisians’ rights to freedom of expression and information online has been short-lived. However, these rights remain at risk,” Afef Abrougui wrote about the draft law in an article published on the anti-censorship network website Advox. “It is possible that legislators will attempt to submit it again or a different version in the future,” continued Abrougui, lead editor for Global Voices’ Advox project.

Asked by Meshkal to speculate on why the law was proposed at this moment, Abrougui considered that “it could be because they wanted to take advantage of the fact that everyone was distracted because of COVID-19, hence the fact that they sought for it to be reviewed urgently.”

However, Abrougui also noted that Nidaa Tounes, a party to which many Tahya Tounes members previously belonged to before splitting off in the last election cycle in fall of 2019, had proposed similar legislation in 2018 criminalizing online defamation.

“It seems to me that some politicians/MPs will continue to test the waters for these types of laws,” Abrougui wrote to Meshkal in response to questions.

Restrictions Through Judicial Power

The 2011 uprising created new spaces for free speech as the political police were reportedly disbanded and new laws protecting free speech were instituted, first by transitional authorities and later in the 2014 constitution. However, since then, formerly existing repressive laws have not been updated to match the constitution, like the penal code. Article 128 of the penal code, for example, stipulates that accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without providing proof can be punished with up to two years in prison.

The recent prosecution of lawyers Abderraouf Ayadi and Najet Laabidi for article 128 in a military trial is another recent case where the state’s institutions—in this case the judicial system rather than the legislature—are being used to police speech. Human rights groups have repeatedly pointed out that the Tunisian constitution prohibits trials of civilians in military courts; Article 110 states that “military courts are exclusively for military crimes.”

On March 5, Ayadi and Laabidi appeared before the military court in a hearing, in secret as military trials are closed to the public. Like the MP Korchid from Tahya Tounes, this case related to another member of Tahya Tounes: Abderrahim Zouari, one of the founders of Tahya Tounes, an ex-minister heading at least four ministries over several years during Ben Ali’s rule, and the former secretary general of the now disbanded single, ruling party the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD by its French acronym).

According to Amnesty International, Laabidi is a lawyer in several torture cases, including the case of “Barakat Al-Sahel” – an apparently bogus coup plot against Ben Ali in 1991 allegedly manufactured by the regime as an excuse to go after presumed political opponents in the military. After the 2011 uprising, some of the 244 soldiers who were tortured in the affair brought forward a case against their torturers, and Laabidi is representing these soldiers. Those accused of torture or abuse of power related to the case include the deposed and now deceased President Ben Ali, the former Minister of the Interior, and several security officials. Abderrahim Zouari was Minister of Justice in 1991 at the time the soldiers were rounded up, and Laabidi apparently wanted Zouari to be among those facing charges.

This trial has been ongoing, and in 2015, Laabidi made comments to the press and in court about it that appear to be the cause for the current prosecution of her for slandering a public official—in this case the judge in the trial.

“I mentioned during the [2015] trial a previous decision to dismiss that this judge issued concerning Abderrahim Zouari despite the existence of condemning evidence, and I said it seems that we are going down a similar path. As a reaction to our doubts expressed in court, she instantly went out to the military prosecution office and filed a lawsuit against us,” Laabidi told Meshkal in a phone interview on March 21, explaining why she has been charged with article 128 of the penal code.

“The judge did not want to hear us and kept interrupting us which led to increased tensions and made us talk about it in the media,” Laabidi added.

Laabidi also noted that besides the case she had before military court, in 2016, the same judge also filed a lawsuit against her, based on article 128 of the penal code, in civilian courts after some statements she made to the media concerning impunity and corruption in the judiciary. She was then sentenced to six months in prison in absentia and a fine.

On March 12, 2020, Amnesty International took up Laabidi’s case as an urgent action, calling on people to write letters to President Kais Saied asking him “to immediately and unconditionally quash any pronouncement rendered by a military court against Najet Laabidi.”

The Amnesty letter also called Labidi’s case an “example of a larger pattern of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Tunisia.”

On March 12, Laabidi was convicted but only sentenced to a “symbolic” fine.

“First, as a lawyer I should not have been tried for my job, and as a civilian I should have not been brought to the military court. These two beliefs made me appeal the verdict,” Laabidi told Meshkal.

Laabidi points to other prosecutions of bloggers for free speech as a worrying sign.

“They have crossed all red lines,” Laabidi told Meshkal. “Many bloggers have been tried before in the military court in Tunisia…bloggers and journalists have the right to ask questions and investigate certain phenomena. However for them, they consider such thing as an occasion to bring people to trial for not only practicing freedom of expression but also freedom of thinking. They take the practice of such rights as an opportunity to exercise their abuse.”

Restrictions Through Administrative Power

Not all recent limitations on freedom of speech have happened through legislation or judicial efforts. There have also been administrative consequences for free speech.

On July 26, 2019, Wajih Dhokkar, a fourth year medical student at the Faculté de Medicine de Tunis University Of Tunis El Manar was suspended for four months after being accused of “insulting the institution’s officials through social media,” according to the disciplinary council’s minutes released on September 6, 2019.

Dhokkar explained to Meshkal that the details of his case date back to June 8, 2019, when he wrote a post in a private, student Facebook group criticizing the studying conditions at the university’s library, which was overcrowded and did not have any cooling system working despite the fact that it was summer and Ramadan.

In his Facebook post, Wajih Dhokkar also called out the university staff for keeping the air-conditioning on in the remaining areas of the medical school campus.

Dhokkar wrote these complaints in a private Facebook group used by Tunis medical school students.

“Two days later, I was called to the dean’s office where he showed me a screenshot of the post I shared. After confirming with me that it was indeed my post, he called the general secretary who stripped me of my student ID and the secretary general was told by the dean to send me a written convocation to stand before a disciplinary board. One week later, I received the convocation which accused me of slandering the administration staff, violating confidentiality, and spreading falsehoods about the administration,” recalled Dhokkar.

According to Dhokkar, the “confidentiality” stipulation is normally only valid for medical students studying at the military academy or for students who have been entrusted with confidential information relating to patients.

Dhokkar told Meshkal he believes his words weren’t slanderous since he did not mention any specific names. He said he only shared his judgement regarding studying conditions in his university, which he speculated in his post were the result of either “misconduct” or “stupidity.” Meshkal reviewed Dhokkar’s original Facebook post and confirmed that it does not mention anyone by name.

The Tunisian Organization for Young Doctors (OTJM for its French acronym), a relatively new professional group set up to represent the interests of younger generation of doctors, issued public statement after Dhokkar’s case and raised the issue in media. Initially they received no response from the dean, Mohamed Jouini, and the rest of the administration, however, once the case did receive some media attention, they were contacted by health ministry officials, according to Dhokkar.

In response to the suspension of their colleague, a demonstration was held on September 13. On November 4, a strike was held in all four medical schools in Tunisia and in hospitals by interns and resident doctors in support of Dhokkar.

Dhokkar said that after the strike he met with several health ministry officials and MPs in an attempt to resolve the issue.

“All of them told me the same thing. They said that we should try to find an ‘honorable exit’ for both parties, which meant I should apologize and the dean would put me back in school the day after. I rejected such a proposal,” Dhokkar told Meshkal.

Dhokkar believes that this condition placed on the removal of his suspension is itself a form of punishment and an act of revenge. Moreover, he is concerned that the administration’s initial investigation into his comments reveals a problem of “spying,” since his comments had been posted to a private group.

“During the session, the vice dean who was holding his phone, went into my personal Facebook account and started reading out loud in front of everyone present other [public] statements that I have shared,” Dhokkar told Meshkal. “The vice president of the University of Tunis El Manar was also present and she said: ‘Even if the claims you made were true, you should have never shared that as it is discrediting the university and degrading to your degree.’”

Asked why the administration might be so sensitive to criticism, Dhokkar said he thinks administration officials have been on the defensive since a large protest movement came to a head in 2018. The protest, entitled “Mouvement 76,” and coordinated by OTJM saw a number of doctors go on strike for 46 days over a set of demands ranging from having more say in shaping academic reforms, a change in the medical degree certification process, and wage equality between Tunisian and foreign doctors. An agreement was reached over the demands, however a recent OTJM statement notes the agreement’s stipulations haven’t been implemented by the government.

In August 2019, another student in the medical school at Sfax University was brought before the disciplinary board in a very similar case to Dhokkar: over a Facebook post also criticizing the study conditions at the library.

According to Dhokkar, the student was threatened with expulsion from medical school if he did not make a public apology, which he eventually did in a Facebook post reviewed by Meshkal.

Dhokkar told Meshkal that after the doctor’s strike in November, he reached an oral agreement with the secretary general of the medical school to cancel his suspension so he would not have to repeat a whole year. Dhokkar said his oral agreement included a stipulation where he would stop his “media bombing” towards the administration. Dhokkar said he asked for a written agreement but was not given one. Dhokkar said that he trusted his professors and together with OTJM decided to halt a two-day strike that was planned in January 2020.

However, in February Dhokkar was surprised by an administration decision to not validate his final school internship. When he asked the administration about it, they denied the existence of their previous oral agreement.

Member of Parliament Yassine Ayari (independent) sent a correspondence on February 18 to the head of parliament calling for a hearing with the Minister of Higher Education concerning Dhokkar’s case. Meanwhile, the OTJM has released a statement condemning the administration for not honoring its agreement with Dhokkar to save him from repeating a year due to his suspension. The statement also called for “preserving student freedom and space for their personal expression.”

Dhokkar said that as a result of this incident some senior doctors have been harassing him, others have ignored him, and some of his fellow students are scared to speak with him.

“With such circumstances, it becomes really hard for you to find freedom of expression. However, I can’t let them win, otherwise other students would see me losing my year as an argument to not to speak up against much worse things,” he said.

“There are certain rights that if you do not practice them, they get easily forgotten…Similar to vaccination which we need to retake every five years, we should do something to remind them that freedom of expression is not a mere privilege and they are rather obliged to respect us when we practice such a right,” Dhokkar said.