In Tunisia, an open debate on data protection and the right to access information

On November 1, Access Now and UNESCO held an event, Data protection bill in light of access to information, bringing together stakeholders including Tunisian civil society, members of parliament and the heads of independent bodies in Tunisia, and expert speakers from neighboring countries.

The contributions of the participants in the three panels at the event served to underscore the importance of passing a national data protection bill in Tunisia. Because the event was open to the general public, it allowed members of civil society to be a central part of the conversation. We believe that this inclusion is important for building awareness about data protection and digital rights and for creating data protection legislation that centers and safeguards individuals’ rights.

The discussion, which was covered on national television, was buoyed by participants’ lively examination of the issues at stake in data protection and their impact on the exercise of other rights, most notably the right to access information and the right to privacy.

As organizers, among Access Now and UNESCO’s objectives were to show why protecting one’s personal data is not at odds with the right to access public information, and that these two important rights can co-exist in harmony. Our aim was also to help clarify how various government actors, whether the national assembly or independent authorities and commissions, can work together to protect Tunisians’ rights.

The importance of passing a comprehensive national data protection law — why now?

The first panel focused on how the proposed Data Protection bill would benefit Tunisians at the individual level and as a society. Bruno Gencarelli, who is head of the International Data Flows and Protection Unit at the European Commission, noted that since Tunisia has proven itself to be a pioneer and leader on issues that are important across the region, other countries are eagerly awaiting its adoption of a modern law on data protection. He added that adopting such a law would also represent an important global contribution in the development of an international standard on data protection.

Mr. Chawki Gaddes, president of the National Personal Data Protection Authority, emphasized the pressing need to bring this law up to date with the social and technological changes that Tunisia and the world have undergone. He pointed to the fact that the existing law, ratified in 2004, reflects the political context  from which it emerged — that is, an authoritarian regime with no respect for human rights — and highlighted the need for a new law that aligns with the current environment of democracy and protection of human rights. For Gaddes, a new law is critical for developing cultural awareness about the protection of personal data in Tunisian society.

Does the Data Protection bill represent a threat to the right to access information?

In the second panel, participants explored the difference between our private, personal data, and public information, highlighting the fact that the right to access information and the right to privacy can co-exist, and that because of their capacity to reinforce other fundamental rights, they represent two sides of the same coin.

Imed Hazgui, president of the Access to Information Authority, emphasized the critical need for balance between data protection and safeguarding the right of access to information, which Article 32 of the Tunisian constitution guarantees. Hazgui said that the right to access information is fundamental for democracy because it embodies the principles of transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. Sawsen Chahed from the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists added that her organization considers the rights to access information and data protection share a common path forward in Tunisia, as they each require constant protection and support. According to Chahed, this can be achieved by implementing the mechanisms necessary to facilitate institutional cooperation between the two authorities: the data protection authority and the access to information authority.

Connecting all the previously discussed points between data protection and access to information

The third and final panel of the day gave participants the opportunity to reflect on the overlapping issues in data protection and the right to access information. Ismail Ben Khalifa from iWatch, a Tunisian watchdog organization, reiterated the need for a clear commitment within the legislation to uphold fundamental rights, especially that of the right to access information. The panel also provided space to look at these issues through a comparative lens, considering how similar legislation and discussions are being broached in the United States. The conversation was greatly enhanced by the contributions of audience members who were able to consult directly with the experts and ask specific questions about the way forward for data protection in Tunisia.

Access Now’s Wafa Ben-Hassine, reflecting on the discussion, observed, “Data protection is important for every Tunisian, especially nowadays with everything that is happening around the world with data leaks and hacks. We’re all very active on social media and know what it’s about, so we’re hoping that Tunisia will adopt the right legislation to protect online users at risk.”

Access Now will continue to foster the culture of enthusiasm and help build momentum behind strengthening the community working for digital rights in Tunisia. We are confident that over the next few months, this multi-stakeholder community will work together to ensure that the data protection bill is passed and voted on in parliament with the relevant clarifications between private, personal data and public information. It is only with a strong data protection framework in place that Tunisia can uphold the principles that it has committed to under the Council of Europe’s Convention 108 and Article 24 of its own national constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to privacy.

Your voice at RightsCon Tunis 2019

The success of this event underscores the importance of this topic: the dynamic interaction between data protection and the right to access information in Tunisia and beyond. Next year, Tunis will be home to RightsCon, Access Now’s annual summit on human rights in the digital age. This marks the first time the global summit will be hosted in the Middle East and North Africa region, with a program that will feature discussions that are crucial to move forward strategies on data protection locally, regionally, and globally. We invite you to help build the strongest possible program by submitting a session in our Call for Proposals (note: you can submit your proposal in French and/or Arabic!).