Tunisia: UN human rights chief requests authorities to stop restricting press freedom and criminalising independent journalism

By: UN News.

On Friday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed deep concern over increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and press freedom in Tunisia, noting that vague legislation is being used to criminalise independent journalism and stifle criticism of the authorities.

“It is preoccupying concerning to see Tunisia, a country that once had so much hope, going backwards and losing the human rights gains of the last decade,” Türk said.

“The crackdown earlier this year on judges, politicians, trade union leaders, businessmen and civil society actors has now spread to independent journalists, who are increasingly harassed and prevented from doing their work,” he said. “I urge Tunisia to change course.”

In the past three months, the Tunisian authorities have on five occasions used vaguely worded laws to interrogate, arrest and convict six journalists. This includes security and anti-terrorism legislation and presidential decree No. 2022-54 on cybercrimes, which contains ambiguous provisions that carry punitive fines and lengthy prison sentences for publishing or disseminating allegedly false news, information or rumours, and authorises law enforcement officers to access any information system or device, for inspection and collection of stored data.

In most of these cases, the restrictions imposed on the freedom of expression of these journalists do not appear to meet the strict requirements of international human rights law, including the principles of necessity and proportionality.

Since July 2021, the UN Human Rights Office in Tunis has documented 21 cases of alleged human rights violations against journalists, including prosecutions before civilian and military courts. There is reason to believe that these prosecutions were initiated to counter public criticism of the President of the Republic or the authorities. Under international human rights law, all public figures, including heads of state, can legitimately be subject to criticism.

On 15 June, the Parliament’s Bureau decided to ban journalists from covering parliamentary committee meetings. On 17 June, a judge banned the media from covering two cases of alleged “conspiracy against state security” in which dozens of people have been prosecuted and arrested since mid-February.

“These decisions undermine the principle of transparency in public affairs. People have a right to be informed and for that, journalists must be able to do their work without undue restrictions,” the High Commissioner said.

“Silencing the voices of journalists, in a concerted effort, undermines the crucial role of the independent media, with a corrosive effect on society as a whole,” she said.

The High Commissioner urged the Tunisian authorities to respect standards of due process and fair trial in all judicial proceedings, to stop trying civilians before military courts and to release all persons arbitrarily detained, including anyone detained for exercising their right to seek, receive and impart information.