Tunisia’s protests and the slippery slope to censorship and repression

This year did not start on a good note for Tunisia. On the tenth anniversary of Tunisia’s revolution, January 14, hundreds of young Tunisians in different parts of the country, particularly marginalized and impoverished areas, took to the streets in protest against poverty and social and economic inequality, as well as police brutality. The government responded to Tunisia’s protests with an iron fist, a move we strongly condemn.

Tunisian police used lethal force against protesters, many of whom are students and teenagers, leading to a tragic death. Around 1,500 protesters were arbitrarily detained for joining the protests or expressing their views online. Members of security forces are smearing and doxxing women activists online, phoning their families to shame them, and forcefully outing queer activists to their families and the public. In one horrifying account, a woman activist said they shared her telephone number, home address, and the location of her child’s kindergarten school on social media. She says she was insulted, threatened with rape, and harassed with non-stop phone calls until 3:00 in the morning.

This violent suppression of the protests brings back painful memories of Tunisia as a police state. We have been following Tunisia’s bumpy yet peaceful transition to democracy since the revolution, and the current events should serve as a stark warning for the Tunisian government of what’s at stake in repression of the people.

With the advent of the new year, we initially planned to share a forward-looking digital policy agenda for Tunisia, but the recent escalations had us start with the basics: freedom of expression and privacy.

In these turbulent times, we strongly urge the Tunisian government and lawmakers to:

Immediately end prosecutions of Tunisian internet users and protect the right to freedom of expression

Freedom of expression was one the biggest gains of the Tunisian revolution. And while Tunisia is widely considered the only lasting success story of the Arab Spring, in recent years the government has tightened its noose around activists, bloggers, journalists and anyone who is critical of the government and expresses themselves online. Both the government and security forces exerted increased repression and cracked down on peaceful protesters, political opponents, and journalists. In the January protests, police used excessive force including firing tear gas to disperse protesters which led to the death of a 21-year-old protester, and the injury of another, after being hit by a gas canister.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights tracked around 1,500 protesters who were arbitrarily arrested by the Tunisian authorities either for participating in protests or for their posts on social media platforms. Around 30 percent of these protesters are children below the age of 18. This is an escalation of an ongoing trend of targeting bloggers and dissidents who criticize public officials, the police, or security forces on online platforms with criminal prosecutions under charges of “inciting violence,” “insulting a public servant” as well as “violating public morals.” Many were denied access to legal and medical assistance, including Hamza Nasri and human rights activist Ahmed Ghram, among others.

Members of Parliament have also begun to muzzle human rights defenders and journalists by criminalizing free speech and prioritizing problematic laws and legislation that pose a threat to fundamental rights and limit access to information. These include the anti-fake news bill, the State of Emergency draft law, the Police Protection draft law, draft amendments to the Broadcast Media Regulations, and more.

The 2014 Constitution of Tunisia enshrines freedom of expression and opinion. Yet many of the draconian laws of the Ben Ali era have not been reformed and have been used to prosecute online speech. Instead of pushing controversial and repressive laws, the Tunisian parliament must reform the outdated laws and provisions, particularly those in the Penal Code, the Press Code, and the Telecommunications Code.

Safeguard privacy and adopt a robust data protection law

We have been urging the Tunisian Parliament for years to reform the archaic data protection law, Law No.63 of 2004 on the protection of personal data, which was passed under ousted president Ben Ali. In a positive move, the Council of Ministers officially ratified the amended draft data protection law in 2018 and referred it to the Commission on Rights and Liberties within the Parliament, in view of the potential impact of data protection legislation on fundamental rights and freedoms. We have been tracking and following closely all developments related to the latest draft law.

Also in 2018, we submitted a joint proposal from stakeholders including civil society organizations, public institutions, and the private sector, and took part in the hearing sessions before the Commission to provide our comments and concerns on the bill. Every year, new members of the Commission are elected and unfortunately the newly elected Commission did not take the results of these sessions into account.

Since then, Parliament has been silent on the issue. In the meantime, as we note in our new report on data protection in the Middle East and North Africa, the Tunisian authorities have been rolling out new technologies that rely and use personal information of Tunisian citizens without ensuring there are robust privacy safeguards and privacy in place. The Data Protection draft law remains a low priority for Members of Parliament despite the urgent need to adopt a comprehensive law and ensure proper enforcement especially in light of the recent scandals and abuse of citizens’ personal data during various events such as the case with the falsification of endorsements in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019. 

The lack of progress and concrete measures towards amending the current draft suggest that lawmakers have no commitment nor desire to curb ongoing abuses to personal data or to safeguard the right to privacy. 

The Tunisian Constitution guarantees the right to privacy, and in 2017, the Tunisian Parliament affirmed its commitment to the protection of personal data by unanimously ratifying the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (Convention 108), and its Additional Protocol 181- which is the world’s only international, legally binding data protection treaty.

To protect democracy, Tunisia must prioritize user-centric, rights-respecting laws

Despite the terrifying crackdown on Tunisia’s protests and the proposal of troubling new laws, Tunisia still has enormous potential for vindicating people’s rights and freedoms in the digital age. To do so, Tunisia must uphold the fundamental rights of Tunisian citizens and internet users as enshrined in its Constitution and as signatory to international conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1969.

Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for right-respecting and user-centric digital policies in Tunisia, and ensure that Tunisian citizens can exercise their rights freely and safely on the internet.