Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: Two Years After the Jasmine Revolution

// A recent Letter to the Editor from the North Africa Post highlighted the free expression struggles of post-revolution Tunisia. For in depth analysis, the CGCS Media Wire turned to scholar and friend of the Annenberg School for Communications, Joan Barata Mir – the Professor of Communication Law and Vice Dean of International Relations at Blanquerna Communication School (Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona). Professor Barata spoke at CGCS this past semester on Rethinking Tunisia’s Media in the Wake of the Arab Spring which you can watch here.

On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set into motion a series of events now known as the Jasmine Revolution. An average citizen without any history of revolution or protest, Bouazizi was stopped on the street and fined a day’s worth of earnings for using an unlicensed vegetable cart. According to Rania Abouzeid for Time Magazine, the arresting officer “allegedly slapped the scrawny young man, spat in his face and insulted his dead father”. Afterwards, Bouazizi went to the provincial headquarters, hoping to gain some recourse. After being ignored for a period of time, the 26 year old set himself on fire in protest and frustration.

This tragic event started a revolutionary process which has been affecting the political landscape of many Arab countries in a variety of ways. In the case of Tunisia, revolution was followed by real political change. Dictator Ben Ali was forced to leave the country under pressure from the protests, new interim governmental and administrative institutions were immediately established, and democratic elections were organized and took place in a peaceful, structured manner. A new elected Government is now holding office along with a representative Constituent Assembly.

The end of Ben Ali’s dictatorship represented, of course, an important change in the realm of free expression. The repressive constitutional and legal framework previously in place was suddenly “suspended”, and as a result, journalists, bloggers and other activists enjoyed the ability to disseminate new content and participate in alternative discourses – very far from the limited expression which was allowed during the old regime. However, this seminal democratic commencement is far from taking place within a clear and secure framework.

Different voices have decided to take advantage of the situation, which can be described as a somewhat legal vacuum. Some of the surviving established powers (including the Tunisian military and judiciary) as well as several emerging social and political movements (most of which are connected with Islamism) are making a staunch effort to exercise editorial control (using either formal or very “factual” procedures and methods) over discourses that would lead to too radical a change of the system.

A New Legal Framework, Constitution for Free Speech and Information
From a strictly legal perspective, it is worth noting that after the ’11 revolution and the establishment of a new institutional framework, two new major laws regulating free speech and media issues in Tunisia, have been approved.

The first is Decree 115 of 2011 on the Press, Printing and Publishing, and Decree 116 of 2011, on the Freedom of Audiovisual Communication and the Creation of a Supreme Independent Body of Audiovisual Communication, both dated on the 2nd of November, 2011. This new package represents an important step forward in the process of the “normalization” of Tunisia, as its effective adoption and implementation would mean the incorporation of some important international standards and best practices concerning the protection of free speech and media regulation.

Along the same lines, a new constitutional text is still being discussed. Both international pressure and a desire for change will likely facilitate consensus on significant levels of protecting free speech and information, yet some international organizations have already expressed their concerns. Of particular importance is the influence that the protection of “sacred values” could have vis-à-vis the actual effectiveness of several human rights. All this being said, it should be noted that the above mentioned Decrees have yet to be officially implemented, as they were approved by the interim Government.

The subsequent moderate Islamist majority seems to lack enough political will to execute and apply some of their proposed provisions. Perhaps most concerning is the establishment of a new independent regulatory body in the field of audiovisual media, as setting agenda and national narratives weigh in heavily when forming a new governing body.

Moreover, tensions currently existing within the political and social arenas have an important impact in the field of free expression. People are indeed freer to express themselves as the former legal and institutional constraints have disappeared (for example, the repressive structure of the Ministry of Information has been fully dismantled). However, as the Press Code in force during Ben Ali’s time is now suspended and no new constitutional and/or statutory provisions have yet been entered into force in this area, the fact remains that Tunisia still does not have a clear, coherent regulatory framework providing for and securing an open, pluralistic and safe public discourse space – space that would be necessary for discussing of issues of general interest.

Understanding a New, Changing Set of Rules
In other words, Tunisian journalists and other dissident “voices” still cannot fully anticipate the new rules of free speech. This is especially troubling, as these new media laws will undoubtedly be applied to citizen bloggers who were responsible for the ’11 revolution in the first place. Understanding the law is of utmost importance both when putting it into practice as well as teaching it to a new generation of policy makers and citizens.

Simultaneously, decisions made by the moderate, interim Islamist Government on political control of public media or protecting religious feelings vis-à-vis some forms of expression have raised serious fears of a possible authoritarian backlash.

Last but not least, the “moderate” Government response to violent or intimidating actions against liberal, non-religious media outlets shows that despite official democratic commitment to free speech and expression, things may not be so simple. Even Tunisia’s moderate Islamists appear to be feeling pressure from forces that neither actively participated in the revolution, nor are looking for a real springtime in Tunisia.

// Joan Barata is a Professor of Communication Law and Vice Dean of International Relations at Blanquerna Communication School (Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona). He was a Professor at the University of Barcelona (2001-2005), the Open University of Catalonia  (since 1997) and the Universitat PompeuFabra (2010-2011), as well as visiting scholar at the University of Bologna (Italy) (2003) and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (New York) (2003-2004).

His writings and research interests include topics such as freedom of expression, media regulation, public service broadcasting and political and legal media transitions. He has provided assistance to several  institutions and organizations regarding these issues in countries such as Thailand, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Albania,  Hungary, Dominican Republic, Colombia and the United States. In particular, his recent writings on Tunisia have been commissioned by  Internews. He has been Head of President’s Cabinet (2005-2009) and Secretary General of the Catalonia Audiovisual Council  (2009-2011). He has also provided assistance to the OSCE (2004) and the Council of Europe (2012).

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