On Thursday, February 21, 2019, the General Coordinator of the political party “Tahya Tounes,” Salim Azzabi, announced that Chawki Gaddes — the Head of the National Data Protection Authority (DPA) — will be presiding over the organizing committee of the party’s official conference overlooking their internal elections, ostensibly as an “independent.” The DPA Head has indicated that he will take two months’ vacation time to do so. This announcement comes as several parties prepare for the parliamentary and presidential elections respectively scheduled for October and December 2019.
Consequently, on Friday, February 22, the National Collective of Independent Authorities released a statement to suspend the DPA, stating that Mr. Gaddes’ decision to join the internal party is “contrary to the principles of neutrality and independence.”
We the undersigned civil society organizations* deeply oppose the decision of the Head of the Data Protection Authority to leave his position for a role within a political party. The Authority is and should remain an independent body. By taking on a role within a specific political party, the head of the DPA contradicts the commitment made in the roadmap of the international conference of data protection and privacy commissioners to maintain its independence. Tunisia could therefore lose its seat as a member of this network of international DPAs.
We commend the decision of the Collective of Independent Authorities on freezing the DPA’s membership. However, to guarantee the protection of the rights to privacy and data protection, we call on the Head of Government to work quickly to appoint someone in lieu of the current DPA, Chawki Gaddes, given that he will be unavailable for the next two months. Finally, barring extreme circumstances, there should never be a gap at the head of the DPA, and it is especially the case during an election year—when the value of said personal data skyrockets and holds great potential to bias election results.
This year, Tunisia is expecting one of its most competitive elections to date within a free and hopefully fair atmosphere. For the country to undergo an election season without the guarantee of basic fundamental freedoms, such as the rights to privacy and data protection, is a recipe for disaster. In an already tense political landscape, the personal data of Tunisians is sure to be taken advantage of in ways that are not difficult to predict — spamming users with political messaging via SMS and email; using personal information to target messaging in an unfair way; and facilitating a free-for-all situation for data brokers and thieves.
As a result of the Head of the DPA’s actions, the draft data protection law faces extreme uncertainty. The bill has already been held back to due to pushback from civil society and other independent authorities as the bill contains significant deficiencies that touch on other fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of expression and the right to access information. The draft law was initially planned to be passed to coincide with the entry into force of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union on May 25, 2018. Nearly a year later, the draft is still at square one.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Head of DPA’s decision gives credence to critics of independent commissions and Tunisia’s democratic transition as a whole. It opens the door to questioning the work of the authority and any decisions it passed down during the tenure of Mr. Gaddes.
We call on the Head of Government, Youssef Chahed, to work with Parliament to appoint a replacement head to the Data Protection Authority as soon as possible to oversee the protection of personal data ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections.
*The undersigned civil society organizations are:
Association Radio Communautaire pour la Liberté d’Expression
Association Tunisienne des Médias Alternatifs
Democratic Transition & Human Rights Support – DAAM
Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES)
Organisation de Soutien des Médias Communautaires
Pôle Civil pour le Développement et Droits de l’Homme Tunis
Syndicat Tunisien des Radios Associatives