Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s government is using draconian laws to target bloggers for expressing dissent on the internet.
TUNIS –– The Tunisian government has cast a web of surveillance across the country and its latest target is bloggers, with at least a dozen facing various charges-- and even prison sentences-- for criticising public figures on social media.
Fadhila Belhaj and Amina Mansour are the most recent victims. Belhaj was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.
As a result, many activists and bloggers feel stifled, finding themselves in a difficult position which demands self-censorship to avoid police action and prosecution.
Since 2017, at least nine social media activists have faced criminal charges, according to Human Rights Watch’s latest release.
Another blogger, Amina Mansour, was charged last August with violating article 128 of the penal code and article 86 of the telecommunications code. The former refers to accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without providing proof of their guilt, while the latter covers "willfully knowingly harms others or disturbs them via public telecommunications networks".
The 47-year-old mother of three has 8,000 followers on Facebook and a status update landed her in trouble. She posted a message on her page addressing the country’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and saying that a parliamentarian named Fadhel Omrane “did not lie when he told you that you gave promotions to all the criminals in the customs agency”.
The blogger continued with her criticism saying: "Sorry, Youssef, my dear, your corruption show has fallen apart.”
“I have many problems I’m dealing with now,” she told TRT World, explaining how she's been ostracised by the government and can’t find a job any more.
In early September 2018, she says the police showed up at her door delivering her a notice from the prosecutor, asking her to appear before the authorities for interrogation.
“The fact is you’re waiting day in and day out to see the police knock at your door,” she said, adding that she's suffering from bouts of anxiety, thinking the police will barge in at anytime and whisk her away.
"The fear is there even though my children are now aware of what’s happening. My 12-year-old told me, 'mom make sure you leave us some money if they take you next time',” she said.
On September 10 last year, the police interrogated her for two hours before she was sent to jail for one night. She was also asked about the 'source' of her Facebook posts.
Authorities charged Mansour with violating both Article 128 of the penal code and Article 86 of the telecommunications code. She was sentenced to two months in prison, suspended, but has appealed the ruling.
“I was condemned in advance any way,” she said.
For Eric Goldstein, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa wing, the "use of repressive, authoritarian-era laws to silence bloggers for peaceful criticism is indefensible eight years after the revolution”.
Amina’s daily life isn’t what it used to be. She says the government's scrutiny has affected her social life. “People avoid me as they’re scared of police action or being harassed at any time asking questions about me or our meetings,” she told TRT World.
Despite facing difficult circumstances, Amina says she doesn’t want to leave her country.
According to personal accounts from several bloggers who TRT World spoke with, the government's crackdown has turned vicious and more and more bloggers are facing random charges for simply criticising the policies of the government
In response to this wave of prosecution, three Tunisian lawyers formed an association in December 2018 named ‘Bloggers without chains’.
The organisation is providing legal aid to 10 bloggers who are facing various charges.
Mohamed Ali Bouchiba is one of the lawyers defending the bloggers. In his 15-year career, he has never seen such fast-tracked judicial processes as those being applied to the blogging community.
In Tunisia, the youth are in majority and largely express their thoughts using online platforms such social media networks.
According to Bouchiba, it's no longer easy to share an opinion on politics on social media platforms. “Young people willing to participate in the social life of their country do it via social networks,” he said.
"In another way, it’s important to understand that these young people have lost faith towards politics,” Bouchiba added. “This is what led them to [online] social networks.”
Often the accused bloggers are summoned and interrogated by either the counter-terrorism unit or the unit in charge of fighting against crime, Bouchiba said.
“Expressing opinions on online platforms isn’t a crime as these bloggers haven’t made any calls for crime, hatred or terrorism apology,” he said.
He believes the judgements are purely political and has denounced the government for dispatching police and secret services to keep a close eye on how Tunisians are expressing themselves on social media platforms.
Bouchiba said the government has even created a ‘Facebook police unit’, targeting bloggers and activists online.
“These summary judgements by courts is a proof that these bloggers are targeted in a pre-electoral period,” he said.
Fadhila and Amina aren’t the only cases Bouchiba defends. To date, a total of 13 bloggers have been charged with various transgressions. Five among them are in prison while the rest have their appeals pending in courts.
Tunisian authorities did not respond to TRT World's requests for comment.
Legal frame to reform
Human Rights Watch called on the Tunisian authorities to respect the freedom of expression and reform laws.
“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,” the Human Rights Watch report maintained.
“Defamation should be treated as a civil, not a criminal issue and never punished with a prison term, the committee recommended.”
Human Rights Watch also pointed out the fact that this law goes back to the time when Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was Tunisia's president, who used these regressive laws to silence his critics.