Protests over economic conditions under COVID-19; journalists face threats for critical reporting

Association and Expression

On 2nd April 2020, the Human Rights Committee published its concluding observations for Tunisia. The committee welcomed the significant increase in the number of associations since 2011 but noted that there are delays in the registration of certain associations and obstacles for organisations that focus on sensitive political issues. Furthermore, it highlighted the complex procedures for access to funding and called on the Tunisian government to simplify procedures and to protect human rights defenders (HRDs). The committee recalled its concerns around freedom of expression, particularly on the criminalisation of activities related to the exercise of freedom of expression, such as the publication of false information, damage to the reputation of public institutions and defamation or slander.

Similar concerns on freedom of expression were echoed in a joint statement issued by over 40 civil society groups on 31st March 2020, expressing their concerns on the draft law No. 29/2020 on amending Articles 245 and 247 of the Penal Code. As noted in the statement, the draft law, submitted on 12th March 2020 to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, would cancel several Articles of Decree Law 2011-115 of 2nd November 2011 on freedom of the press and printing and publishing as it contains comprehensive legal provisions for the offences of publishing false news (Article 54) and calumny (Article 55 and 56). The bill was submitted to parliament on 29th March 2020 but was withdrawn by its initiator Mabrouk Korchid, a member of parliament. Korchid announced that the draft law would be withdrawn “for now” but that he remained “convinced” that it does not threaten freedoms.

In a positive development, on 21st February 2020, the Tunisian appeals court (the Court of Cassation) rejected the government’s bid to shut down the LGBT rights group Shams. The government's case against the organisation began when it declared that “Shams cannot continue its activities, which go against the traditions of Tunisians, who are Muslim. Islam prohibits these practices, also prohibited by Tunisian law, under Article 230 of the penal code.” The lower court rejected this reasoning in 2016. The government appealed but the Court of Appeal of Tunis once again rejected its appeal in May 2019.

Peaceful Assembly

A lockdown has been implemented in the country since 22nd March 2020 due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Despite this, on 31st March 2020 protests were organised, particularly over economic conditions. Hundreds marched in various parts of the country calling for an end to the nationwide lockdown and for financial aid due to the dire economic conditions in the country.

Other protests took place in the region during this period related to COVID-19:

  • Residents in the Bizerte and Beja regions gathered to prevent officials from burying two coronavirus victims at the local cemetery. Security forces used tear gas to disperse the group.
  • In village of al-Qalah, protests were staged by family members of those diagnosed with the coronavirus over quarantine conditions for patients. Media reports note that security forces dispersed the protesters. 
  • Detained migrants staged a hunger strike in Tunis over inadequate healthcare in a detention facility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rights organisations wrote a letter to authorities requesting reasons for the detention. In addition, Amnesty International called for the immediate release of detainees. In its report it detailed conditions in the Ouardia Reception and Orientation Center in Tunis, where there is overcrowding, with approximately 50 detainees sharing five rooms, two bathrooms and a common eating area.
“As part of their overall plan to combat COVID-19, the Tunisian authorities should be seeking to reduce the population of its detention centers and, as an immediate step, release the Ouardia immigration detainees and ensure they can access lifesaving healthcare. Detention solely for immigration purposes should only be allowed in the most exceptional of circumstances and simply cannot be justified in the middle of a global pandemic such as Covid-19,”- Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for North Africa at Amnesty International.

report prepared by FTDES (Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux) shows that during the month of March 2020 alone the Tunisian Social Observatory team recorded 223 protest movements, of which 119 protests were regarded as spontaneous and unplanned. In February 2020 there were 705 social demonstrations in the country. Despite this number being slightly lower than demonstrations in the same period last year, the report documents that there was a significant increase in violent protests, from 144 in February 2019 to 168 in February 2020. 

Expression

Attacks on WHRDs

There have been several cases violating freedom of expression during the period January to April 2020. For instance, on 12th March 2020, the Military Court of First Instance in Tunis convicted woman human rights defender Najet Laabidi of "attributing to a public official (…) illegal acts related to her job without proof” and issued a symbolic fine. Her trial followed complaints filed by a military judge presiding over the trial of former regime officials who were being prosecuted for torture. Laabidi, who was the defence lawyer for the victims in this case, flagged several human rights violations and questioned the judge's impartiality in the case.

Amnesty International launched an urgent appeal to the President of Tunisia, Kais Saied, requesting that the Penal Code be reformed to protect freedom of expression.

On 13th January 2020, Frifta, a transgender woman human rights defender (WHRD) and member of the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, was violently attacked in Tunis and subjected to electric shocks by three men, including a police officer. A report by Front Line Defenders notes that no action was taken to ensure that the perpetrators were held accountable. 

Journalists, bloggers face attacks and criminal prosecution

There have been several cases of government attempting to silence journalists and bloggers who criticise its response to the pandemic, as highlighted by Amnesty International

  • In April 2020, two bloggers were detained for “insulting state officials", "causing disturbances to the public" and defamation. This comes after their posts on social media alleged that government has failed to provide financial aid and basic food supplies during the pandemic.
“The last thing the Tunisian authorities should be doing in the middle of a pandemic is arresting or prosecuting people who are critical of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The free flow of information and public trust is particularly important at this time. Those detained for expressing their views must be immediately and unconditionally released,”- Amna Guellali, Deputy Regional director for Middle East and North Africa.
  • On 13th April 2020, blogger Anis Mabrouki posted a video on Facebook showing people gathering outside the mayor's offices in Tebourba (a town 30 km from the capital Tunis) demanding financial assistance. The next day, Mabrouki received a summons from the authorities after the mayor pressed charges against him. During his 15th April 2020 court appearance, Mabrouki was charged with "causing noises and disturbances to the public" and "accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without furnishing proof of guilt" under Articles 316 and 128 respectively of the Penal Code. He remains in detention pending trial.
  • In her Facebook video post, female blogger and political activist Hajer Awadi alleged that there is government corruption and highlighted the poor distribution of food supplies in Le Kef, North West of Tunisia. In the video she claims that police assaulted her and threatened to arrest her and her uncle. The two were later arrested and interrogated by police. They were charged with “insulting a civil servant” under article 125 of the Penal Code and “causing noises and disturbances to the public” under article 316 of the Penal Code.
  • Journalist and media commentator Khalifa Chouchene faced online attacks after he criticised the Minister of Health Abdellatif Mekki on national radio on 9th April 2020. On air he said: “They should cry less because coronavirus recognises neither the tears of ministers nor human feelings, it only recognises real and practical measures on the ground.” He faced multiple threats on social media like “this media of shame should only be destroyed.’’ Another wrote that he supports the “burning of [media] headquarters and the execution of all those who work in any media outlet that spreads fear or strife, or even questions the efforts of health professionals.” The National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) condemned the attacks on Chouchene.