After the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tunisian government has extended the state of emergency for three more months.
On 12 March, a member of parliament proposed a draft law to combat disinformation during the COVID-19 crisis, on the pretext of fighting “fake news” and controlling the flow of information on social media platforms that could impact “national security and order.”
Although countering disinformation during this crisis is a legitimate aim, this proposal is a direct threat to freedom of expression online. Most of its provisions are dedicated to muzzling journalists and activists, as well as exercising control over them through intimidation and by limiting access to the information necessary to document any rights violations that may take place under these circumstances.
Fortunately, civil society took action. Only hours after the proposed bill was leaked to the press, the public responded with a wave of criticism on social media platforms. This response led MP Al-Mabrouk Karsheed, who proposed the draft law, to withdraw the draft, stopping it from moving forward in parliament.
Perhaps the most important element that drew the ire and concerns of civil society and journalists, is the bill’s clear exploitation of the current crisis to pass a law that would restrict the public’s rights and freedoms. The public backlash prompted a number of deputies from various parliamentary blocs to back down and withdraw their signatures as well.
Why is the bill dangerous?
The proposed bill is drawing widespread criticism from various associations and human rights and media organizations, in addition to the National lawyers Association. It directly conflicts with local laws and provisions of Tunisia’s Constitution that guarantees freedom of thought, opinion, and expression in both Articles 31 and 32, and Article 49, and also contradicts the provisions of international law and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by Tunisia.
Following are the articles that have a profound negative impact on the right to freedom of expression:
- The draft law is aimed at criminalizing circulating disinformation or misinformation on social media platforms, but it blurs the line between online defamation and “fake news,” and this confusion means that it could be used against political opponents, journalists, or bloggers critical of the government or institutions and public figures.
- Article 25 has a broad definition of defamation and online defamation, which is “every disclosure of false or doubtful speech between users of social media platforms, that would offend individuals, groups, or institutions in any way, whether it is a publication or through shared content.” That broad wording risks the interpretation of phrases such as “doubtful” to violate the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. In addition, this text could be applied to target ordinary internet users who are simply sharing or retweeting content on social media platforms.
- Article 247, modified, has steep penalties for breaching the provisions of the bill, with a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Tunisian dinars, which is extreme. The punishment is also doubled if the defamation is by an anonymous or pseudo-anonymous person, which negatively impacts the right to anonymity that the United Nations has deemed necessary to protect journalists and activists from censorship and targeting, and describes “laws, practices, and policies that prohibit, restrict, or otherwise undermine anonymity — in the name of public order — causes serious harm.”
How should we fight disinformation during the COVID-19 crisis?
Gaining the right to freedom of expression is considered one of the most important achievements for Tunisia after the revolution in January 2011. The Tunisian Constitution, which was amended in 2014, states that “The freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication shall be guaranteed. The freedom of expression, information and publication may only be limited by a law that protects the rights of third parties, their reputation, their security and their health.”
Accordingly, Access Now advises:
- No state should criminalize sharing false or inaccurate information or news about COVID-19. Focusing on criminalizing speech or using other coercive measures to counter false information or communications in connection with the pandemic is not a response that can be justified by a public health emergency. Disproportionate criminal laws to combat misinformation shared by individuals — in the context of COVID-19 or other such emergencies — opens the door to human rights abuse such as the unjustified prosecution of those critical of the state.
- States should instead employ measures to support dissemination of accurate information. Various examples from around the world show that some countries are using criminal law to target journalists or health care workers — specifically, those who have sought to share important information or have criticized governments for not responding properly to the COVID-19 crisis. According to David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, the absence of restrictions on free expression does not mean the absence of procedures to address disinformation. As suggested by Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, states can take steps for effectively combating misinformation through robust public messaging, education and clear communication, and regular public service announcements at the local and national levels.
- States invoking emergency powers must ensure appropriate limits. In times of a global pandemic such as COVID-19, governments may invoke special powers to introduce extraordinary measures to prevent and mitigate a health crisis, but they must observe international human rights law and additional domestic constitutional standards.
- States should continue to observe pluralistic and inclusive processes for policy making. It is crucial to involve civil society organizations in consultations and public sessions, to maintain community participation in accordance with the principles of democracy.
This is an important victory for free expression in Tunisia, showing the power of civil society working together to counter dangerous regulations that might otherwise harm human health during the COVID-19 outbreak, hurt free expression rights, and erode democracy.
During this crisis in the world, Access Now will continue to advocate for appropriate legal frameworks to ensure the exercise of fundamental rights in the MENA region and throughout the world. We express our willingness to cooperate with policy and decision makers who contribute to developing these laws in these exceptional circumstances, in order to ensure the passage of laws that respect human rights and public freedoms.
Follow our work on the protection of digital rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.