Tunis, January 25, 2019 – Tunisian authorities are investigating, charging, and in some cases detaining bloggers and social media activists merely for their peaceful criticism of public officials, Human Rights Watch said today. Several said they have begun to censor themselves because of police action and threat of prosecution.

At least nine bloggers have faced criminal charges since 2017 for comments on social media platforms criticizing high public officials, accusing them of corruption or allegedly insulting them. Human Rights Watch interviewed seven of them and several of their lawyers.

“The continued use of repressive, authoritarian-era laws to silence bloggers for peaceful criticism is indefensible eight years after the revolution,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The charges frequently include accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without furnishing proof of their guilt, under article 128 of the penal code, which provides for up to two years in prison. Many of those charged under article 128 have also been charged under the broadly worded article 86 of the telecommunications code. That law, dating to the period when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was president, provides for one to two years in prison for anyone who “willfully knowingly harms others or disturbs them via public telecommunications networks.”

On August 29, 2018, Amina Mansour, a blogger, posted a status update on her Facebook wall addressing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, saying that member of parliament “Fadhel Omrane did not lie when he told you that you gave promotions to all the criminals in the customs agency. Pow! Sorry, Youssef, my dear, your corruption show has fallen apart.” The post also accused a customs official of corruption and the prime minister of promoting corrupt customs officials.

On September 12, officers from the Hay el-Khadra police station in Tunis summoned Mansour and interrogated her for two hours, including about the sources of the information she had posted. The prosecutor sent her to jail, where she spent one night.

Authorities charged Mansour with violating both article 128 of the penal code and article 86 of the telecommunications code. A court of first instance convicted Mansour of both crimes and sentenced her to one month in prison for each of the two charges, suspended. She has appealed.

A group of Tunisian lawyers has formed an association called “Bloggers without Chains” in response to the wave of prosecutions, sometimes waiving their customary fees.

Mohamed Ali Bouchiba, secretary-general of the association, told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors seem to be targeting bloggers with large followings.

Tunisian authorities should reform laws like penal code article 128 and telecommunications code article 86 that are incompatible with the protections of freedom of expression in the 2014 constitution and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Tunisia has ratified, Human Rights Watch said. In 2011, Tunisia’s transitional authorities eliminated from the press code and the law pertaining to broadcast media some of the criminal penalties for speech offenses. But the authorities continue to prosecute peaceful speech under the repressive laws that remain in force.

In addition to article 128, article 125 of the penal code punishes “insulting a public officer during the performance of his duties,” with up to one year in prison. Article 67 of the penal code, which dates to 1956, punishes anyone “guilty of insulting the head of state” with up to three years in prison. Articles 245 through 247 define defamation and “calumny” as criminal offenses punishable by six months and one year in prison, respectively. These articles date to the French colonial era.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ensures the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas on all kinds, orally, in writing, or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the person’s choice, on the condition that the expression does not harm anyone’s reputation or endanger the public order.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international body of experts who interpret the ICCPR, has said that all public figures are legitimately subject to public criticism, and that there should be no prohibition of criticism of public institutions. Defamation should be treated as a civil, not a criminal, issue and never punished with a prison term, the committee recommended

The committee said “that in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. Thus, the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.”

Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.

“As long as these legal tools to muzzle criticism remain on the books, Tunisian authorities can’t resist the temptation to use them,” Goldstein said. “With Tunisia’s progressive constitution turning five years old on January 26, it is high time for parliament to eliminate these laws that violate its spirit.”

For details about selected cases, please see below.

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