A New Law Sends an Ominous Signal in Tunisia

Lawmakers in Tunis want to ban criticism of the armed forces, muzzle journalists, and impose draconian punishments. Is the revolution still alive?

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Four years after the removal of Tunisia’s authoritarian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali, who relied on a notorious security apparatus to rule the country with an iron fist, the ghost of his police state lingers on in the North African nation.

On April 8, the Council of Ministers approved a controversial new draft law that would grant additional powers and protections to the military, internal security forces, and the customs service — and curb constitutionally granted civil liberties. The law has been widely criticized by political parties and civil society groups, who say it paves the way for the return of the former regime’s draconian practices and poses an imminent threat to Tunisia’s newly-gained freedoms.

It contains several particularly contentious provisions. Article 5 stipulates that acquisition or use of any security secret is subject to a ten-year jail term. Even worse is the broad scope of the term “security secret” as defined in Article 4: “any information, data or documents related to national security regardless of how they were acquired, stored, or employed.”

“Article 4 is problematic because of its broad definition of security secret,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a legislator affiliated with the ruling Nida Tounes party, which came to power after last October’s election. Belhaj Hmida explained that Tunisia does not have a clear system of categorizing information as classified or not classified. As a result, this clause makes any journalist who reports on security issues vulnerable to legal prosecution. “This law can indeed open the door for oppression and stifle freedom of the press,” she said.

But restrictions related to secret information are not the only problem. If the law passes, people who “denigrate the armed forces” could face jail sentences of up to two years. A similar provision, which already exists in the code of military justice, was recently used to prosecute blogger Yassine Ayari for “defaming the army” after he made a Facebook post critical of former defense minister Ghazi Jeribi. But the new law would extend comparable protection to customs agents and internal security forces, placing them above criticism and making citizen oversight of these institutions impossible.

The law has also been criticized for prescribing harsh jail sentences for acts such as “disturbing public order,” a vague term that may allow the arrest of people who protest misconduct by a government official. Destroying police property such as a police car could be punishable by life imprisonment. The law also includes provisions criminalizing attacks on family members of security forces. Article 15 states that a person can face up to five years in jail for threatening to commit a felony or a misdemeanor against a security agent or a member of his or her family. Belhaj Hmida said that such clauses could easily be abused as a way of settling personal conflicts.

The law’s critics are diverse. It’s no wonder that the National Union of Tunisian Journalists has called for its immediate repeal, deeming it contradictory to the spirit of the 2014 constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. More surprisingly, even police unions have spoken out against the law. Chokri Hamada, who represents the National Union of Internal Security Forces, which has also demanded that it be withdrawn, said that it does nothing to protect the armed forces, but will instead damage the relationship between security forces and citizens. “Let us be clear,” he said. “We [security forces] are being used to limit press freedom.”

Neziha Rejiba, a renowned human rights activist and a longtime opponent of the Ben Ali regime, blamed “elements from the former regime” who are still within the government for the law, saying they see tightening security as the only way to preserve public order. “They do not believe in human rights or a good relationship between citizens and the security forces,” she said. Rejiba added that she does not see the security forces as requiring protection. “If we pass a law protecting the security forces from citizens,” she said, “we will need to protect the citizens from the security forces too. In fact the assaults of police on people outnumber the attacks of people on security forces.”

Rejiba sees the law as a trial balloon released by the government to test the alertness of civil society and the willingness of Tunisians to tolerate authoritarian laws. She added that her association, which is called “Vigilance,” is working alongside other groups to oppose the law’s passage.

In the face of all this criticism, the spokesperson of the Council of Ministers, Ahmed Zarrouk, defended the law as compatible with the standards and provisions of international conventions and not in contradiction with the fundamental principles of the United Nations.

The law came amid calls from some in the security forces for more protection and better working conditions, given the fact that they have been the main target of the surging militant activity across Tunisia in the last few years. It is also part of the government’s effort to fight terrorism in the wake of last month’s Bardo museum attack, which took the lives of 21 foreign tourists and one Tunisian. The Bardo attack also served to accelerate the Council of Ministers’ approval of a new terrorism law that is still awaiting the parliament’s ratification. Human Rights Watch said the new draft of the terrorism law provides a “broad and ambiguous definition of terrorist activity,” which would include damaging public and private property and infrastructure. Such a vague definition might lead to “criminalizing political dissent and minor acts of violence during social protests,” the organization said.

Lawyer Anouar Ouled Ali, who has extensive experience in terrorism cases, said that the new terrorism act has serious loopholes that threaten human rights and due process. One of his concerns is that it allows police to detain terrorism suspects for up to 15 days without a trial. 90 percent of his clients who are arrested for terrorism-related charges claim that they are subject to torture during pre-trial detention, which currently lasts up to six days. “Extending the pre-trial incommunicado to 15 days will lead to a longer period of torture and might even result in deaths,” he said.

Both the armed forces law and the anti-terrorism law contain language echoing legislation that Ben Ali used to silence political dissent and stifle freedom of the press. “When I see those two laws, I feel like the situation in Tunisia might get even worse than the Ben Ali era,” Ouled Ali said.

Now that the cabinet has approved and defended laws that could bring back oppressive practices from Tunisia’s previous era, it has become clear that those currently in power cannot be entrusted with the hard-won gains of the uprising. As the threat of a slide back into dictatorship becomes more palpable every day, Tunisia’s vibrant civil society remains the only hope of the country’s feeble democracy.

Photo Credit: FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

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