Tunisian authorities backslide on access to information commitments


Restrictions on media freedom and the right to access to information have resurfaced in Tunisia at the start of 2017. On 15th January, a government circular instructed civil servants not to release any information without prior authorisation from their superiors. The circular was widely condemned by freedom of expression advocates and public servants alike, with many viewing it as further evidence of the government's intention to normalise the witholding of information. On 9th February, fifteen local and international organisations released a joint statement outlining their opposition to the circular. 

The statement called upon Tunisian authorities to immediately recall the circular, which civil society believes contravenes the constitution. In 2016, access to information laws had been enhanced through legal provisions designed to ensure that citizens and civil society could access information freely. 

In February, Tunisian civil society groups mobilised against anti-terrorism laws which breach the right to fair trial. Civil society groups have called for the laws' revision in light of repressive clauses and ambiguity. Antonio Manganella, director of the local office of Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) commented on the law by saying: 

'Both the 2003, and the 2015 laws are characterised by particularly repressive clauses, and ambiguity in the definition of the term terrorism, and certain terrorism-related offences. This adds on to the somewhat random nature of the judicial system.'

The current laws allow authorities to detain suspects for up to fifteen days without legal representation for the first 48 hours.

Peaceful Assembly

On the sixth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, several protests took place across Tunisia. One of the driving forces behind the citizen mobilisations was a lack of employment opportunities for young people. Several protesters were arrested for voicing opinions about their right to work. Local civic group Le Forum Tunsien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES) issued a statement, criticising the systematic policy of targetting activists calling for work, highlighting at least 10 cases in different areas. 

In another open letter, FTDES alerted the Prime Minister to the escalating wave of civic action, including hunger strikes. The civic group called upon Tunisian authorities to take adequate steps to address citizens' social and economic concerns and to desist from the increasing practice of prosecuting activists under false pretences.

On 14th January, tensions over unemployment in southern Tunisia erupted into protests and clashes with security forces. The city of Ben Guerdane was closed for several days after protesters burnt tyres, threw petrol bombs and clashed with police over frustrations relating to the Tunisian-Libyan border. The unrest reached boiling point when security forces used tear gas to quell the angry crowds.

Around 4,000 activists also protested peacefully in the town of Meknessi to demand work opportunities and development projects. There are no reports that this protest turned violent.