Another Blow to Freedom of Speech in Tunisia

A military court sends an ominous message about freedom of expression in the country that launched the Arab Spring.

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Earlier this week, a military tribunal in Tunis sentenced a blogger to a year in jail for a Facebook post it deemed “defamatory” of the armed forces. Needless to say, the case casts an ominous light on the prospects for freedom of expression in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Last November the military court initially sentenced Yassine Ayari, in absentia, to three years in prison, so Tuesday’s verdict actually represented a reduction of the penalty. Ayari’s lawyers immediately filed for an appeal, and human rights groups are calling for his immediate release. Amnesty International denounced his conviction as a “gross violation of the right to freedom of expression.”

Over the past few months, Ayari had posted a series of messages on his Facebook page criticizing decisions made by current Minister of Defense Ghazi Jeribi. His posts referenced several recent military appointments and the resignation of a high-ranking military official. In one of his texts, Ayari claimed that Jeribi intends to sell land owned by the military. He then noted that the minister is serving under a limited mandate in the interim technocratic government of Mehdi Jomaa, which is valid only until a new government based on the recent election takes office, and argued that Jeribi does not have the right to make such decisions. He also challenged the minister to respond to his allegations and to deny them if they’re wrong.

Ayari’s claims provoked a backlash from the Tunis military court, which resorted to a 1957 law (Article 91 of the code of military justice) to indict Ayari and charge him with “harming the dignity of the army” and “defaming the army high command with the effect of undermining military discipline.”

“The idea behind this law is to intimidate anyone who tries to speak up,” said lawyer Malek Ben Amor, one of several representing Ayari. Ben Amor is also the head of a “defense committee” of 54 lawyers who have joined together to help the blogger.

Article 91 is one of many laws inherited from long decades of dictatorship in Tunisia. Vague and full of loopholes, the law enables the military tribunal to prosecute anyone, including civilians, for the simple act of talking about the army. “A civilian will be punished when he opens his mouth and says anything about the army: anything, good or bad,” Ben Amor added.

He said that the use of such laws is arbitrary and selective. He pointed out that some of the claims made by Ayari were first raised by a police union leader named Sahbi Jouini, who was also pursued by the military court. Unlike Ayari, however, Jouini remained free and was never arrested. “He [Ayari] is being prosecuted because he is Yassine Ayari, not because he wrote about the military,” said Ben Amor.

While Ayari frequently blogs and analyzes Tunisian political affairs, his special interest in the military can be traced back to the fact that his own father, Colonel Taher Ayari, was killed in an armed confrontation between the Tunisian army and suspected Islamist militants in May 2011.

Ayari started his cyber-activism before the January 2011 uprising that toppled the country’s longtime autocratic leader Zine Abidine Ben Ali. He is also known for his hostile views to figures of the former regime and for his support of ex-President Moncef Marzouki and his Congress for the Republic (CPR). During the most recent electoral campaign in 2014, Ayari stood out as one of the harshest critics of current president Beji Caid Essebssi and his Nida Tounes party. Ayari made many enemies when he popularized the hashtag “#vote_for_the_diapers,” aimed at mocking the age and physical infirmity of the 88-year-old presidential candidate Essebssi.

Ayari’s supporters and lawyers suspect political motives behind his conviction. Military justice in Tunisia makes little pretense of independence. In fact, the head of the Supreme Council of Military Justice is none other than Minister of Defense Jeribi, the target of Ayari’s allegations.

“Rather than opening an investigation into the allegations against the minister, they sent Yassine to jail,” said Moutia Ayari, Yassine’s 27-year-old younger brother. “We’re returning to the practices of the past. Now we have military tribunals. People can no longer express their opinions or criticize.” He added that civil society groups are supporting Yassine in his case precisely because they see it as a “barometer for rights and liberties in Tunisia.”

Perhaps even more disturbing than the case itself is the relative lack of reaction to the verdict from the public. Moutia Ayari said that, despite the support his brother has received from international human rights groups and media outlets, local groups have failed to show the same level of interest and concern. “I was interviewed by Le Figaro, Le Monde, Yahoo News,” he told me, “but in Tunisia the only media outlet that interviewed us was [private channel] Zeitouna TV.”

Ayari’s views were echoed by his brother’s lawyer, Ben Amor. He said that local organizations seemed more reluctant to criticize the case against his client, while international groups have been far more zealous in defending Yassine.

It would seem that the past four years of political wrangling and polarization have left Tunisian civil society divided and unable to reunite against a common enemy: the specter of a reviving dictatorship. Today Yassine is the victim. Who knows who will be next?

Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Asma Ghribi is a journalist and researcher focusing on Tunisia. Follow her on twitter at @AsmaGhribi.