Freedom of expression at risk in Tunisia
By Yasmine Najjar in Tunis for Magharebia – 26/04/2013
Tunisia's highest court on Thursday (April 25th) failed to review, as expected, the jail terms given to two men for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, their lawyer told AFP.
The suspension created confusion in a controversial case that many activists view as a major setback for freedom of expression in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
"I was surprised to discover that the court has not acted because the demand for an appeal was mysteriously withdrawn," Ahmed Mselmi told AFP.
Jabeur Mejri and his co-defendant Ghazi Beji, who fled abroad and whose whereabouts are unknown, were sentenced in a closed hearing in March 2012 to seven and a half years in jail for "publishing works likely to disturb public order" and "offence to public decency".
Tunisian rights defenders are sounding the alarm over the state of political freedoms in the country. Last week in Tunis, they presented testimonies of journalists, activists and artists at a seminar organised by Amnesty International.
"Freedom of expression in Tunisia and the countries of the so-called Arab Spring is threatened due to violations committed against journalists, activists, artists and others," Lotfi Azzouz, the head of Amnesty International Tunisia, said at the April 17th event.
"This event is about launching a national campaign for the respect of freedom of expression in Tunisia. We have circulated a petition to be delivered to the National Constituent Assembly and the presidency of the government," he said.
Journalist Sofien Ben Farhat complained that he had received death threats.
Tunisia's media sector is also threatened with a legal vacuum and lack of protection.
"There are efforts by the government to replace Decree Law 115 that organises and regulates the freedom of press with another law that could drag journalists to prison," stressed Kamel Labidi who presided over the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC) after the revolution. "This law would be a stain on the forehead of the National Constituent Assembly if it agrees to ratify it as a law replacing Decree Law 115."
Legal and media experts who partook in the national consultation on the legal framework governing the media sector agreed last year that Decree Laws 115 and 116 suffered from gaps and legal loopholes. These laws, prepared by the High Commission for Realisation of the Revolutionary Goals, contain serious deficiencies and risks to free press, they concluded.
"There is no room to legally activate Decree Law 115 because of what it contains in terms of gaps, ambiguities and inconsistencies. It suffers from weaknesses in methodology and wording and a lack of knowledge of penal law and procedures," commented lawyer and university professor Bechir Ferchichi.
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