Draft laws cause concern over potential violations of civic freedoms


In its recent investigative report on the conditions for Tunisian civil society, the Arab Reform Initiative found that structural and financial hurdles are increasingly inhibiting the country's civil society organisations (CSOs). In a detailed analysis of the Tunisian legal framework, the Initiative notes that human rights organisations, in particular, face unwarranted restrictions when trying to access funds for their work. As stated in the report: 

"...the difficulty and arbitrariness human rights organisations face in obtaining public and foreign funds hinder their activities and undermines their programmes. There is a need to examine in more detail the question of how funding sources, availability, mechanisms and conditionality affect the governance of Tunisian CSOs and their very programmatic priorities".

Even in this difficult environment, international observers note that national civil society groups remain focused on combating corruption and promoting transitional justice in Tunisia. For example, as previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Administrative Reconciliation Act that passed on 13th September 2017 ignited and mobilised protests and campaigns against the bill by civil society movements such as Manich Msamah and Iwatch

In a positive development, there were two innovative Tunisian nominations for the global Digital Award for Transparency. Winning in the category for Open Data, Cabrane is a civil society monitoring platform to track public infrastructure projects in Tunisia. The runner-up was another Tunisian project, Al-Bawsala, which puts citizens at the heart of public action by giving them access to data and tools to observe and monitor the activities of public institutions. 

In a separate development, a coalition of civil society groups has been campaigning against the proposed new law on Prosecution of Abuses against the Armed Forces. In July 2017, eleven national and international groups issued a joint statement condemning the proposals by stating that the provisions establish a police-state dictatorship. Considering that the draft criminalises criticism of the police and permits harsh sentences for whistle blowers, many fear that the law could be used to target critical human rights defenders. As the law also grants Tunisian security forces broader powers to use lethal force, a number of CSOs have expressed concerns over the potential for increased clashes between police and protesters during peaceful assemblies. Local CSO Al-Bawsala recently stated that the unjustified curtailment of civic freedoms is unconsitutional and unhelpful for Tunisia's democratic transition, declaring that

“The legal chapters of this draft law are illogical...the draft law is a blow to the freedoms of demonstration, organisation and expression...[which do] not suit a country going through a democratic transition”.

Despite a sustained fightback from civil society, on 15th November 2017 a joint committee with representatives from a number of government ministries was established to explore possible amendments. While the committee will consider an amended version of the draft law, Tunisian Interior Minister Lutfi Ibrahim was quoted as saying that the bill will not be withdrawn and that there will be revisions to preserve rights and freedoms. Civil society groups, however, claim that the proposals infringe on the right to association, assembly and expression, while normalising a culture of violence by Tunisian security forces. 

The furore over the proposals comes at a time when Tunisian security forces have increased the number of campaigns for greater protections. On 3rd November 2017, in the central city of Sfax hundreds of policeman came together calling for the adoption of the law. Deliberations on the proposed new law continue at the time of writing.