Amid political crisis in Tunisia, free speech is more important than ever

In 2011, Tunisians put an end to a 23-year-long dictatorship and embarked on a tumultuous, yet remarkable, journey towards building a democracy where human rights and media freedoms are upheld and protected under the law. In light of the recent political developments in Tunisia and the uncertainty of what the country’s new chapter will bring, it is timely to look at the past decade’s developments and stress that continued support to Tunisia’s independent media actors and rights groups must be maintained and even expanded.

On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended parliamentary activities for 30 days, assumed new judicial powers and stripped lawmakers of immunity, in effect centralising all three branches of power – executive, legislative and judicial – in his own hands. The move, which came in the context of a widely-debated exceptional measures provision in the constitution, was immediately denounced as a “coup d’état” by the largest party in parliament, Ennahda, their allies, a considerable number of non-Ennahda-affiliated political figures, as well as a large number of international observers and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) pundits. 

On the street, however, the announcement was met with jubilation and celebrations by thousands of Tunisians who broke Covid-19-spurred curfews to express a sense of renewed hope. In the subsequent days, many established and influential national civil society actors, political parties and rights groups, including those who won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for their role in protecting Tunisia’s democracy, issued measured statements avoiding outright condemnation while pressuring the president to follow up his actions with a clear roadmap, defined timeline for ending the exceptional measures and public commitment to upholding freedoms and rights. 

Freedom of expression: the main gain of the revolution 

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are incontestably the revolution’s greatest achievements. In 2020, Tunisia ranked 72 (out of 178 countries) in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, a dramatic improvement from its 164th ranking in 2010. During the 2019 elections, Tunisians tuned in to watch a pool of 26 presidential hopefuls stand behind lecterns and answer the questions of two seated journalists under strict time limits on live television, an unprecedented display of the political elite showing significant deference to the press. The symbolism and tenor of that debate garnered wide praise in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond. Political programming, where opinions run unscripted and state officials’ and politicians’ dirty laundry is aired uninterrupted, dominate mainstream television channels and radio stations.  

Before 2011, the media landscape in Tunisia, which was composed of a handful of television stations, a dozen radio stations and a number of print publications, was tightly controlled by a police state that used techniques ranging from bureaucratic red tape and favouritism in financial subsidies to intimidation, physical assault and imprisonment of dissident voices. The former regime maintained a firm grip on its “sand beach destination” image abroad, making interventions and support from international non-governmental organisations and rights groups, including IMS (International Media Support), challenging and limited in form and scope despite many attempts to support Tunisian dissidents in countering the regime’s narrative. 

Following the fall of the regime in 2011, the immediate relaxation of administrative red tape for licensing led the number of media outlets to mushroom. Most of the state institutions that controlled the media either dissolved or evolved and modernised and were stripped of their repressive powers. New print and electronic publications no longer need the Ministry of Interior’s authorisation prior to publishing and are only required to provide a simple declaration of the project to a district court.  

This transformation of the country’s media freedoms can be credited to the swift legal reforms enacted immediately after the ouster of the old regime. In November 2011, Tunisia adopted the “Law on Freedom of the Press” and the “Law on Freedom of Broadcast Media” (Decree 115/2011 and Decree 116/2011) that, respectively, guaranteed the protection of journalists and set a regulatory framework for audio-visual media. Most notably, the decrees replaced the archaic press code of 1975 — which previously mandated heavy fines and prison terms for vague offences — and mandated the creation of an independent broadcasting authority that guarantees broadcasting freedoms, grants licenses, establishes professional and ethical standards and monitors programmes.  

However dysfunctional, Tunisians have built a democracy complete with free and fair elections, freedom of speech and democratic reforms. In 2014, the country’s then National Constituent Assembly adopted a new constitution that protected freedom of expression, thought and assembly, promised gender parity and urged political decentralisation. Free and fair legislative and presidential elections have been administered by an independent electoral commission, and municipal elections were introduced for the first time in the country’s history as a stepping stone toward the decentralisation of governance.  

More support, not less  

Despite the major improvements witnessed over the past ten years, freedom of expression is not fully protected or enshrined in a comprehensive legal framework, a key goal of free speech advocates. Prosecutions of bloggers, activists and social media users ticked upward over the past few years. An Amnesty International investigation in November 2020 found that at least 40 bloggers and human rights defenders faced criminal prosecution between 2018 and 2020 “simply for publishing online posts critical of local authorities, the police or other state officials.” Most of the reported cases did not lead to prison sentences, but “summons for interrogation, the indictments and the trials themselves on charges that carry prison sentences” could have a chilling effect on people who express critical opinions, warned the rights group.  

In June alone, the Tunisian journalists’ union, known by its French acronym SNJT, recorded 18 attacks against professional journalists. Following the president’s announcement on 25 July, 20 plainclothes police raided Al Jazeera’s Tunis office and ordered its staff to leave without presenting a warrant. Additionally, there have been a number of reports of journalists or bloggers being harassed or detained for questioning by police.  

Supporting Tunisia’s democracy and safeguarding the gains made since the revolution has been a priority for the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP). Over the past decade, IMS, supported by DAPP and other Nordic donors, accompanied rights groups and advocacy groups in this uphill battle. These actors have also mobilised and pushed back successive attempts by powerful political forces to curb freedoms and roll back measures of progress. 

Independent media actors have played a key role in maintaining a space for public debate and protecting the people’s right to balanced information, a critical element in holding officials accountable. In this effort, IMS both has and continues to support independent content producers who are investigating and producing innovative content, including documentaries on the country’s winding historical path towards democracy, in-depth coverage of corruption scandals and even Tunisia’s version of #MeToo over the past years. Their role will prove instrumental in the tense, uncertain political developments of the coming weeks and months. 

It is no secret that the social and democratic reforms that have earned Tunisia so much praise are marred by chronic delays in implementation, as well as counter-revolutionary and counter-progressive pushback. These challenges are further amplified by the mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, political deadlocks and power grabs, adding additional fuel to the popular anger that has led to protests and clashes since January 2021. 

Amid a national political environment of instability and uncertainty, there has never been greater need for continued support for independent public interest media and civil society in Tunisia. Some of these media outlets and civil society organisations, including IMS partners, have taken special care to inject nuanced commentary into an increasingly polarised national discussion. The country needs media and civil society that are able to enforce accountability on the country’s powerholders — which, as of now, consist of the sole figure of the president — if Tunisia’s revolutionary gains are to be preserved.