Tunis, Tunisia – A leading human rights group has slammed the use of a Tunisian law criminalising the spreading of “fake news” to stifle free speech in the country.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has criticised the implementation of the legislation, issued directly by President Kais Saied following his 2021 suspension of parliament, which they claim allows him to criminalise any type of electronic communication that he objects to.
Decree 54, issued by President Kais Saied in September 2022, criminalises using electronic equipment to share false information, part of what his supporters have viewed as an important push against attempts to deceive the public.
However, since its introduction, the decree has been utilised to target a number of Saied’s opponents and critics, with several currently in prison as a result.
The principal focus of the ICJ’s criticism is Article 24 of the decree, allowing up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to $15,000 for anyone found to be spreading “false information and rumours” online. Critically, that sentence doubles if the offending statement is made about a state official.
However, critics have pointed out that by failing to define precisely what constitutes false information or rumour, the decree has gifted lawmakers an easy tool with which to penalise critical speech.
Other provisions allowed for the security services to search telecommunication devices or computers for material considered to be in breach of the Decree and for devices to be seized and data intercepted if authorities believed there was probable cause.
So far, at least 14 individuals have been investigated since the law was introduced – some are already serving jail time. The ICJ has said there are likely many more.
In October, Tunisian lawyer Mehdi Zagrouba wrote a Facebook post accusing the justice minister of fabricating evidence in a case against 57 of the country’s judges, who were accused of corruption and alleged delays in the prosecution of “terrorism” cases.
Zagrouba is now serving an 11-month sentence and has been barred from practising law for five years.
In October of last year, Ahmed Hamada, a law student and blogger, wrote a Facebook post, criticising the way his neighbourhood was being policed. Criminal proceedings against him are still pending.
Meanwhile, Nizar Bahloul, the editor of a local news site, was investigated for writing an opinion piece deemed critical of the country’s prime minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane. That case remains open.
“The adoption of a law that provides for 10 years imprisonment and a heavy fine for anyone who would criticise a state official, a law that international and Tunisian human rights organisations described as “draconian”, can only be a repressive act in itself,” Fida Hammami, a legal adviser for the ICJ whose report, Tunisia: Silencing Free Voices, was published on Tuesday.
“The message sent through such legislation is clear: there will be no tolerance for criticism and that any expression of dissent will be severely punished,” Hammami continued. “Such laws have no place in democratic times, they are tools in the hands of authoritarian regimes. Now we hear of new criminal investigations opened under [the decree] almost every week, the report details 14 cases as illustrations but we know the number is bigger.”
In their briefing paper, the ICJ calls for all charges to be dropped against anyone currently imprisoned under the terms of the decree, as well as reparations to be paid for any harm suffered. They also call for a halt to the practice of trying civilians in military courts, as well as an end to political attacks on lawyers, political opponents and journalists.
Decree 54 has proven immensely controversial since its introduction.
In January, five United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed their “deep concerns” about the decree and its compatibility with international law.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Access Now and other rights groups have all proven energetic in resisting the legislation. Within Tunisia, the journalists’ union, Syndicat National des Journalistes Tunisiens (SNJT) has led the resistance to the law.
Critical to the widespread implementation of Decree 54 has been Saied’s weakening of the judiciary’s independence.
Mistrusted by many for failing to stop widespread police violence and its close relationship with past governments, objection was muted when Saied disbanded the judiciary’s ruling body in 2022, replacing it with a body of his own design that ultimately answers to him.
“As a result, the Tunisian authorities are currently weaponising the prosecution office, as was the case under the pre-2011 dictatorship [of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali], to initiate and continue politicised criminal proceedings against judges, lawyers, critics, members of political opposition and individuals exercising their fundamental rights, even when investigations and evidence establish the charges to be unfounded,” Hammami said.