One of the gains of the 2011 uprising in Tunisia was the freedom of expression and media. The online space has been a politicized refuge for Tunisians to express their opinions and mobilize against injustices. Ongoing political deadlock and instability created more tensions and leeway for human rights transgressions. Despite progress of democratic reforms and provisions, online political activism has been under threat with freedom of speech smeared by astonishing breaches with harassment, arrests, trials, and persecutions.
Digital Citizenship in partnership with SMEX have come together to conduct qualitative research in Tunisia to study the state of Freedom of Expression in Tunisia in the last decade.
In this research, we interviewed activists, politicians, lawyers, national and international organizations to assess the status of freedom of expression amid restrictions and questionable practices while covering trends and publicly known cases. We also studied the former legal framework to better understand the challenges and threats.
Since the 2011 uprising, the digital space became an arena for political activism and with the political instability in the country, individual rights are more vulnerable to any hostility.
What did we find in the context of Freedom of Expression online?
· The legal framework has been used to crackdown online freedom of expression,
· Penal code is seen as an outdated legal framework (goes back to the punitive approach of the colonial period),
· Non-judicial bodies (security forces) played a role in restricting and persecuting Tunisians online,
· There are no guarantees of fair trials, legal support of defendants, if the case would become a public opinion or not,
· Military trials of civilians are still in place,
· Lack of documentation of cases: cases are spread between news articles, human rights organizations’ reports and press releases and social media posts of supporters,
· Impact of COVID19 gave the ministry of interior more legitimacy to control,
· Elections and fake news play a role in the outburst of slandering campaigns and defamation. Freedom of speech was used as a tool to justify organized campaigns against some politicians, political activists or public figures,
· Verdicts are taking too long (not seen as priority, bureaucracy of the judicial process, over crowdedness of courts, after COVID19 it got worse due to limited number of cases to process),
· Harassment of the defendants was predominant especially by police forces,
· Interviewees blamed public prosecutors for conspiring with police forces (legal procedures do not seem to always be respected,allegations of falsifications of records),
· Punitive approach of the juries,
· Self-censorship occurred in cases following the unpleasant process, harassment or threats while other cases were not affected and kept expressing their views online,
· Civil society mobilization is still affected by emotions and immediacy with a lack of follow up,
· The online space is intertwined with the public space (activists getting persecuted during protests or outside based on their online activism).