Tunisia: human rights groups call for withdrawal of draft law that threatens free expression during COVID-19

Human rights organizations and associations, signing below, express their deep concern at draft law No. 29/2020 on amending Articles 245 and 247 of the Penal Code provisions. It reflects a blatant contradiction with Articles 31, 32, and 49 of the Tunisian Constitution, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by the Republic of Tunisia.

The undersigned associations and organizations condemn the initiating party, which in this critical situation that our country is witnessing, has demanded urgent consideration of the draft law, which was submitted on 12 March to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, with a plea to refer it in accordance with urgent procedures rules.

The undersigned associations and organizations warn and point out that this draft law will inevitably cancel several Articles of Decree Law 2011-115 of 2 November 2011 on freedom of the press, printing and publishing, as it contains comprehensive legal provisions for the offenses of publishing false news (Article 54) and calumny (Article 55 and 56).

The draft law also conflicts with the constitutional requirements stated in Article 49 of the Constitution, which must be respected when issuing or legislating any rule that would restrict rights and freedoms, as it contains penalties that are disproportionate to the stated criminal acts. Penalties are also unnecessary since the publication of false news is already a criminal offense under Article 54 of Decree Law 2011-115 of 2 November 2011 on freedom of the press, printing and publishing.

The undersigned human rights organizations and associations emphasize that countering the spreading and publishing false news is a legitimate aim. Yet it should not become a means of violating Articles 31 and 32 of the Tunisian Constitution through the use of broad terms such as those included in the draft law, for example, “defamation committed by anonymous people,” which would threaten the right to anonymous expression. Other terms, such as “questionable speech,” would criminalize news that is false but not intended to harm public security or national defense, and could be corrected through several legal mechanisms, such as the right of reply, correction, or by making modifications oneself as the author or through a journalism syndicate. These vague provisions mean that the proposed law violates the condition that legal rules must be clear and precise.

This legislative proposal also reflects a clear and serious confusion between stopping calumny and publishing false information. While the two share the element of spreading false news, they differ in terms of the legislative interests that need to be protected. Criminalizing calumny is a measure aimed at protecting a person’s dignity and reputation, while criminalizing the spreading and publishing false news is a measure aimed at protecting public security, national defense, and public health. Moreover, the draft law underscores the seriousness of this proposal in annexed documents that emphasize that the reasons for this legislation include protecting certain persons’ social and political reputation, which constitutes a clear violation of the principle of equality for all citizens before the law. This is at a time when legislation generally tends to promote the latter; that is, promoting the protection of individual and collective freedoms and ensuring dignity for everyone, without distinction for any reason whatsoever.

In light of the importance of this legislative initiative in terms of its impact on freedom of expression and a free press, on the one hand, and the violations that it contains, on the other, particularly in light of the existing legislative framework that already criminalizes disseminating false news, as set out in the aforementioned Decree No. 115, the following associations and organizations call upon the initiators to withdraw it immediately.

  1. Tunisian General Labour Union
  2. General Union of Tunisian students
  3. Tunisian Federation of Associative Media
  4. National Union of Tunisian Women
  5. Alliance for Tunisian women
  6. Association Jossour for Developing Medinin
  7. Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors
  8. Chapter 2 Association
  9. Association Beity
  10. Association for Promoting the Right to Difference
  11. Attalaki Association
  12. Association for development and Strategic Studies of Medinin
  13. Tunisian Association for governance and social accountability
  14. Tunisian Association for Defending Individual Liberties
  15. The Tunisian association for the defense of university values
  16. The Tunisian Association for Amazigh Culture
  17. Tunisian Association for Investigative Journalism
  18. Tunisian Association for Democratic Women
  19. The Tunisian Association for Rights and freedom
  20. Karama Association for the Arab Family
  21. Mosaic Association
  22. The Association of the Tunisian Judges
  23. Citizenship and Freedom Association
  24. Tunisian Women Association for Research and Development
  25. Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
  26. DAMJ Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality
  27. Tunisian Human Rights League
  28. Tunisian Electors League
  29. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network
  30. International Federation for Human Rights
  31. Kalam Organization
  32. Committee for Respecting Liberties and Human Rights
  33. Ahmed Al-Tlili Organization for Democratic Culture
  34. Reporters without Borders
  35. Democratic Transition and Human Rights Support Center (DAAM)
  36. Tunis Center for Press Freedom
  37. Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights
  38. Access Now Organization
  39. Article 19 Organization
  40. 23-10 Organization for Supporting the Democratic Transition Path
  41. National Syndicate of Tunisian journalists


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