Free Expression Still Threatened In Post-Revolutionary Tunisia

Although the Tunisian media has never been more free, freedom of expression is still limited in some respects and citizens are being imprisoned for expressing their views.

al-monitor Police officers detain a topless activist from the women's rights group FEMEN during a protest against the arrest of their Tunisian member, Amina, in front of Tunisia's Ministry of Justice in Tunis, May 29, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

Topics covered

media, freedom of religion

Jun 19, 2013

Everyone, or almost everyone, agrees that freedom of expression is the Tunisian revolution’s only real achievement. The media have never been this free: The government and the presidency are criticized left and right. However, this fact does not seem to please everyone and, yet again, freedom of expression stands threatened.

On June 13, 2013, Weld el 15, a 20-year-old rapper was sentenced to two years in prison without parole for having released a song titled The Police Are Dogs. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Amina was held in custody because she posted pictures of herself flashing her breasts on Facebook. Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri, two 20-year-olds, have each been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for making cartoons offending the Prophet. Nizar Bahloul and Sahbi Amri have both been sentenced in absentia to four and eight months in prison without parole, respectively, for writing certain articles. This is an anthology of sentences and proceedings in progress against individuals who have expressed views that are different from those of the majority, thus stirring the latter’s discontent.

Freedom of expression remains a thorny issue even in the best democratic models. The problem is actually not easy: Where does freedom of expression stop and when does it become reprehensible, and therefore punishable by law? France has raised this issue many times in the case of the comedian Dieudonné or earlier in the case of the rap band NTM. In Tunisia, the problem of freedom of expression is not presented in this framework. The law is subjugated and used solely to protect the moral fortress of the majority. The above-mentioned cases involve insults in a song, a naked woman and young atheists, and all of this is done to safeguard and protect moral “tranquility” from these reckless youth.

Compared to France or the United States, Tunisia clearly still has a long way to go before it can integrate freedom of expression as an essential part of social functioning. However, we could start by adopting certain practices — the first regarding punishment per se — to lead us to uninhibited freedom of expression.

In the great democracies, the punishments related to freedom of expression never deprive individuals of their liberty. The comedian Dieudonné was sentenced to pay fines, but he did not spend one single day in prison. This is because imprisoning a person because of her words — as shocking as they might be — goes against the very philosophy of the right to freedom of expression. Back in Tunisia, we realize that it is this type of punishment that is preferred to condemn people because of their ways of expressing themselves. Moreover, there is fluctuation between blind support for freedom of expression — in the sense that everyone has the right to say whatever they want anywhere — and deep revulsion toward FEMEN, rapper Weld el 15 and atheists Mejri and Beji. According to some Tunisians, those involved in the previous cases deserve their fate, and this ought to teach others a lesson.

Justice decides whether a person is guilty or not and whether they violated a law or not. This is an essential part of social functioning, and freedom of expression can never be unlimited and total. The law must regulate freedom of expression and must protect it from usurpers and profiteers. We cannot slander or threaten others under the guise of freedom of expression, and a call for murder can never be protected by this freedom. However, this legal setting should not be imposed through punishments that deprive individuals of their freedom. In this particular issue, the established punishments should undergo reform.

The law must be fair, yet it is unfair to deprive a 20-year-old of two years of his life because of a song. It is unfair to condemn two young people to seven and a half years in prison because of a bunch of cartoons. It should be noted also that Beji, sentenced in the atheism case, was able to obtain political asylum in France, thus becoming the first Tunisian political refugee in this post-revolution era. France realized the injustice that Tunisia has committed against Beji, and has welcomed and protected him. Meanwhile, Mejri, who was condemned in the same case, rots in jail.

There is no doubt that defending freedom of expression will give rise to certain impunities. Today It has become easy to raise the banner of freedom of expression left and right. However, these usurpers must not cause damage under the pretext of defending their rights. For this reason, the law, which essentially aims to protect freedoms, not to fiercely punish them, exists. The deprivation of liberty cannot be tolerated in the proceedings or matters pertaining to freedom of expression.

In Tunisia, we must first ensure that the same punishments are imposed on everyone and that justice is equally applied to all citizens. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case, because those who have uttered death threats against Ahmed Néjib Chebbi and shot Chokri Belaid have not lost any sleep, unlike Weld el 15.

The fake imams inciting hatred and murder did not face the same fate as Mejri, and the spokesman of Ansar al-Sharia who insulted the state only spent four nights in jail, while Amina is still rotting in prison. Journalists are sentenced in absentia, while those who publish doctored pictures and commit slander are not worried because they are close to people in power.

A French proverb says, “He who sows injustice reaps unhappiness.” Well, this is food for thought.

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