Tunisia

By John P. Espinosa

Flag_of_Tunisia.svg

The Flag of Tunisia

Introduction

According to Freedom House, Tunisia received high marks in 2016 when it comes to press freedom and freedom of speech. In this same report Freedom House ranked political rights and civil rights 1 and 3 (1 being free and 7 being repressed) respectfully. Additionally Tunisia ranked 13 out of 16 (16 being the highest possible rank) on ‘Freedom of Expression and Belief.’ These numbers are quite promising and reflect an upward trend of rights being given to Tunisians. During Fall 2001, “Freedom House ranks Tunisia extremely poorly in terms of political rights (6. Where 7 is the bottom rank) and civil liberties (5)” (Sorkin). As seen, many strides have been made since 2001. Much of this can be attributed to the Jasmine Revolution in early 2011 where president Ben Ali was overthrown. In order to have a better understanding of Tunisia’s speech and press freedoms one needs to look at the history of the country and examples when these freedoms were tested.

Historical Background

Tunisia is a country in North Africa that borders Libya, Algeria, and the Mediterranean Sea. According to the 2016 CIA World Factbook, Tunisia is 163,610 square kilometers in area which is slightly larger than the United States state of Georgia and has a population of almost 11 million. The capital is Tunis and Tunisia has a Republican form of government. After much tension in the area, France invaded Tunisia in 1881 and established it as a French protectorate. After three quarters of a century under French protectorate, Tunisia declared itself independent in 1956. Even though Tunisia is a Democratic Republic, it is far from the case. One party rule has been implemented since their first president Habib Bourguiba and the Socialist Dusturian Party rule (1956-1987)  and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and the Democratic Constitution Rally (1987-2011) when Bourguiba was overthrown. This one-party rule in addition to high unemployment and economic hardships led Tunisians to be one of the first Arab nations to overthrow their government during the Arab Spring in January 2011. After the Arab Spring, Tunisians worked to improve citizen participation in the government. This led to a new constitution in 2014, more political participation, and placed Beji Caid Essebsi as the fourth president of Tunisia. The economy of Tunisia is very diverse, consisting of tourism, textiles, agriculture, and petroleum as major aspects contributing to growth. Tunisia is also well known for being one of the most socially advanced Middle East/North Africa nations by offering women equal protection under the law and pushing for an educated populace.

 

Free Speech

Ever since Tunisian Independence, there has been instances where free speech has been suppressed. Examples such as protest suppression and political oppression account for just some ways of free speech oppression. One of the most notable instances that free speech has been suppressed was on Janurary 26th, 1978. This day in Tunisia is known as “Black Thursday”. The event involved the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) advocating for a higher minimum wage and equal pay. These protests were nationwide. In retaliation, the government and police harshly suppressed the protest with brutality, “leaving hundreds of protesters dead…a curfew was put in place that lasted for over a month” (Gana 136 ). Then just six years later in 1984 protests broke out again in Tunisia over the cut of subsidies for bread and semolina which skyrocketed the price of bread overnight. This angered citizens, and there was vehement protest against the government. Just like “Black Thursday” six years earlier, government and police brutally intervened and hundreds of people were killed or injured. In this case, bread prices were quickly subsidized afterwards. These two separate instances of government and police suppression showed a lack of free speech protection by the Tunisian government. By bringing out military force the government instilled fear in its people by showing a tendency to quash any anti-government rhetoric. Aside from suppressing protests, the Tunisian government has also suppressed minority Islamic movements. Tunisia prides itself on being a pluralistic democratic republic, but elections are suspect when the president receives 99 percent of the vote. The first cases of suppression started in the 1980s against the Islamic Tendency Movement (later renamed An-Nahda) and continued all the way up until the overthrow of President Ben Ali in 2011. There were many ways the government suppressed the Islamic movement including but not limited to “restricting on the party’s activities, the closure of its newspapers and eventually the arrest of large numbers of its activists and supporters” (Willis 168). The Tunisian government was successful in suppressing the Islamic movements and claimed its justification since the president was elected by popular vote. This is another example of how the Tunisian government suppressed free speech within the country. By not allowing other political parties to participate in government the flow of ideas was cut off and there would only be one voice in the country, the incumbent president.

Even after the Arab Spring, Tunisia still has issues when it comes to freedom of speech. In 2014, blogger Yassine Ayari was charged with violating Article 91 of Tunisia’s Military Code of Justice. According to Al-Jazeera, Ayari, “was charged with defaming the military and sentenced to 3 years in prison…”(Reidy). For these charges, Ayari was tried in a military court. These were troubling developments because a civilian who was expressing his opinion was tried in a military court where there may have been an inherent bias against him. Additionally, there were free speech issues because it did not allow people to comment or express their opinions freely about the military. In a country like Tunisia that is just rebuilding after a revolution, the military played a large part in society to ensure law and order is kept. Sometimes situations aren’t always ideal and the military may abuse its power occasionally. By suppressing criticism of the military, proper checks of authority are being eliminated and may prevent important discussions.

Free Press

Just like free speech, the freedom of the press has historically been suppressed in Tunisia. Tactics such as censoring oppositional newspapers, and conducting surveillance and arresting journalists, have been historically used by Tunisia’s first two presidents. In 1999, “For the second year in a row, CPJ named President Ben Ali one of the world’s top 10 enemies of the press” (Committee to Protect Journalist). An instance of censorship occurred in 1999 at the onset of the Tunisian presidential election. The French newspaper Le Monde wrote a critical piece about the election that the government didn’t like. This resulted in Le Monde being censored and banned from Tunisia for months. Additionally, the maltreatment of journalists is another way freedom of the press is under attack. In 1991, journalist Hamadi Jebali published an article advocating for the termination of military tribunals and was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Jebali was a writer for a newspaper sponsored by An-Nahda. When he was released in 2006 he was “the longest-serving imprisoned journalist in the Arab world” (Committee to Protect Journalist). Another instance of the state suppressing the press was an incident with journalist Taoufik Ben Brik. He has had a long history with the Tunisian government and has been censored on multiple occasions and his passport was seized. In 2000, Ben Brik published articles about human right abuses in Tunisia and a short time later was prosecuted for “publishing false information and offending public institutions” (Committee to Protect Journalist). In retaliation to ongoing harassment and surveillance by the state, Ben Brik went on a 43-day hunger strike. Once the hunger strike was over he was given back his passport. All of these examples show a lack of commitment to protect press freedoms. By censoring newspapers, the government is showing that it does not care about the facts or the truth; it just wants to get its point across and no one else’s. This once again shows the lengths that the state was willing to go to suppress dissident opinions. Additionally, the harassment and imprisonment of journalist show that the country is disregarding basic human rights to freely express oneself. This is also quite an interesting dichotomy. For a country that places a high priority on education and gives equal rights to women, it is interesting to note that they do not extend these freedoms to the press. Additionally, there is a sort of irony in the country. They claim to give freedoms to the press and provide avenues for various organizations, but they use these same avenues to suppress the press.

Given the history of press suppression in Tunisia, the overthrow of President Ben Ali in 2011 provided the opportunity to change that. In the years following the overthrow of Ben Ali an entity called the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) was created. According to Foreign Policy, “HAICA is charged with ‘guaranteeing the freedom of expression’ and the ‘establishment of a pluralistic, honest media landscape” (Aliriza). There has been opposition to this entity. Being tasked with ensuring that there is an honest media landscape means there is going to be some regulating of information. By regulating information, this entity determines what can and cannot be disseminated. This concerns free press because an entity will be tasked with determining what people can and cannot view. There may be inherent bias in play and that could possibly cause a problem. Secondly, as HAICA’s name states, it is an independent entity from the government. This inherently brings up issues as well because outside influences may want pressure HAICA to favor their viewpoint over another. According to Foreign Policy, these are some of the flaws that many opponents of HAICA see that could cause future problems and make it less effective.

Critical Comparison

When it comes to a critical comparison of free speech between the United States and Tunisia, the United States gives its citizens more freedoms than Tunisia. As it could be seen, Tunisia historically has suppressed protests by using military and police force. It should be noted that the United States has also had moments in its history where political protests have been suppressed. Examples include the Haymarket Riot in the 1800s, Vietnam war protests, Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and the current Black Lives Matter movement. In these instances, police or military force has been used to quell these protests and mirror what has happened in Tunisia. Even though there have been moments of suppression in U.S. history, the U.S. Supreme Court has continuously protected distasteful speech. One example is the Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson. This is similar to a Tunisian example because this court case involves a protest that expresses an opinion with which the state disapproves. Johnson was participating in a protest and burned an American flag. He was the only one arrested under a Texas law that prohibits flag desecration. When the case came to the Supreme Court, it was decided that Johnson’s punishment was unconstitutional. This shows that despite the distasteful nature of his speech, the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Instead of placing prosecuting powers in the military as in Tunisia’s case, the United States placed those powers in its courts. When it comes to political parties, the United States continuously has a system where political parties can freely participate in government. Unlike in Tunisia where there is one party rule, the United States has two party (and other smaller parties) where there is a free flow of ideas and public discourse. Furthermore, there are peaceful transitions of power between political parties during elections. When comparing the history of free speech suppression in Tunisia, even though there are some isolated incidents of suppression in the United States, the United States continues to protect free speech.

As shown in the free press section, Tunisia has suppressed newspapers by censoring papers and harassing and imprisoning journalists. The United States’ history of press freedoms has mainly been more free than Tunisia. Many times in Tunisia, when one publishes an article that the government doesn’t like they will imprison or harass journalist. The United States has had moments in its history where it has mirrored Tunisia’s stance on speech freedoms. The Sedition Act of 1798 was a piece of legislation where this was the case. According to the act, there were “penalties for writing, printing, uttering, or publishing ‘False, scandalous and malicious’ statements against the federal government, either House of Congress, or the President” (Fisher, pg. 511). These were the early days of the American Republic and free press issues were very pertinent and still growing. In cases like this, the United States was very similar to Tunisian policies. After President John Adams’ term, the Act expired. Even though we see an example of the United States restricting press freedoms, there are also cases where they have supported the press. The Supreme Court case of New York Times v. United States is a case that shows the United States commitment to protect free speech. The New York Times, after receiving and publishing an article on classified material about the Vietnam war, the U.S. government asked that they stop publishing about classified documents. This resulted in litigation. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices decided that prior restraint was unconstitutional and the New York Times could publish its articles on the U.S. policy in Vietnam. This suggests that the United States is more willing to protect press freedoms than Tunisia. On the one hand you have a country (Tunisia) that will jail and harass journalists who publish a viewpoint opposite their own. Then on the other hand you have a country (United States) that will protect and allow a newspaper to publish information that one may deem to be critical to national security. It is not hard to conclude that based on this information that the United States is more free when it comes giving press freedoms. It should be noted that Tunisia has made strides when it comes to allowing press freedoms in the past few years but nonetheless it is something that will need to be continuously worked on.

Conclusion

            Tunisia has a long history when it comes to suppression of speech and press. Recent changes show that even though there is an attempt to open the public dialogue and allow more press freedoms, there are still more improvements that need to be made. When compared to the United States, Tunisia is not as free. Tunisia’s continued attempts to harass and arrest journalists show that the country doesn’t respect a free press. On the other hand, while the United States have had moments in its history where the press has been suppressed, it showed that it values a free press though its highest court. New York Times v. United States show this unwavering commitment. While many cases of police and military suppression can be seen in both countries, the United States has shown that it is willing to allow speech one may hate such was the ruling in Texas v. Johnson. While recent changes in Tunisia’s laws suggest attempts to allow more freedoms, they still slightly fall short of the level of the United States. If Tunisia continues to progressively improve its policies then in time more Tunisians will be able to say what they want, publish what they wish, and open up dialogue so all can participate.

 

Works Cited

Alirita, Fadil. “A tale of Two Decrees.” Foreign Policy, 11 Jun. 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/06/11/a-tale-of-two-decrees/.

Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA World Factbook 2016. Skyhorse publishing, 2015.

Committee to Protect Journalist. “Attacks on the press 1999: Tunisia.” Committee to Protect Journalist, 22 Mar. 2000, https://cpj.org/2000/03/attacks-on-the-press-1999-tunisia.php.

Committee to Protect Journalist. “CPJ and Human Rights Watch protest ongoing Harassment of Tunisian Journalist.” Committee to Protect Journalist, 12 May 2000, https://cpj.org/2000/05/cpj-and-human-rights-watch-protest-ongoing-harassm.php.

Committee to Protect Journalist. “Tunisian Journalist Freed after 15 years; another still held.” Committee to Protect Journalist, 27 Feb. 2006, https://cpj.org/2006/02/tunisian-journalist-freed-after-15-years-another-s.php.

Fisher, Louis, and Katy J. Harriger. American Constitutional Law: Constitutional Rights: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. 11th ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2016.

Freedom House. “Tunisia-Country report.” FreedomHouse, n.d., https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/tunisia.

Gana, Nouri. The Making of the Tunisian Revolution [electronic resource]: Context, Architects, Prospects. Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

Perkins, Kenneth J. A History of Modern Tunisia. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Reidy, Eric. “Questioning Freedom of Speech in Tunisia.” Al-Jazeera, 30 Jan. 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/01/questioning-freedom-speech-tunisia-150126104509780.html

Rugh, William A. Arab Mass Media. Praeger Publishers, 2004.

Sorkin, Jerry. “The Tunisian Model.” Middle East Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 4, 2001, ICHA267654. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.

Willis, Michael J. Politics and Power in the Maghreb. Colombia University Press, 2012.

 

This page was last edited on April 30, 2017

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