Tunisia: Presidential State of Emergency to Suppress Speech on Social Media

On Wednesday, January 10, attorney Assia Haj Salem joined a large group of attorneys, politicians, and activists who gathered in front of the Court of First Instance in Tunis to protest the policies of the Tunisian president. 

“We will not return to the cage. We refuse to go back to how things were before January 25 or January 14. Let us all agree that what is currently happening in Tunisia is beyond all imagination. After years of oppression, we all looked forward to the moment when the bird finally escaped the cage. We cannot bear to think that a decree which is opposed to the most fundamental principles of freedom and democracy could still be issued in our country,” stated Salem, referring to Decree No. 54.

The protest was organized to show support for Ayachi Hammami, a former minister responsible for human rights and relations with constitutional bodies and civil society. Hammami was summoned to court for criticizing Tunisian President Kais Saied’s policy toward the 57 judges he had dismissed in June 2022.

Although it has been a year and a half since his power grab, President Saied believes that there are still threats to the country and has therefore extended the state of emergency under Order No. 50 of January 26, 1978. At the same time, Saeid has immunized himself against his critics by issuing a series of decrees that have raised the concern of rights organizations for restricting freedoms, such as Decree No. 14 of 2022 on Illicit Speculation and Decree No. 54 on Combating Cybercrime.

Decree 54: Presidential Guillotine
Ayachi Hammami, who is the coordinator of the defense team of the arbitrarily dismissed judges and the president of the National Authority for Defending Freedom and Democracy, was referred for investigation under Decree 54. Attorney Lazhar Akremi, a member of Hammami’s defense team, told SMEX that Hammami has been charged with “spreading false rumors that undermine people’s reputation and public security,” as well as “making false claims with the intention of defamation,” both of which are charges mentioned in Article 24 of Decree 54.

Akremi added that the lawsuit against Hammami is due to his previous statements, in which he said that the Minister of Justice had failed to implement a ruling issued by the administrative court, thereby committing a crime according to the law. He also spoke about how the President of the Republic had offered severance pay to the 57 dismissed judges, which represents an act of corruption and squandering of public funds. 

Akremi himself has been charged with defaming another person online and of “accusing a public employee of committing illegal acts under the Telecommunications Code and the Penal Code,” due to a Facebook post in which he criticized President Saied’s dismissal of several judges.

Former minister Ayachi Hammami is not the only victim of Decree 54. Journalist Nizar Bahloul was also summoned for interrogation by the Criminal Search and Investigation Squad, following a complaint filed against him by Minister of Justice Leila Jaffel for publishing an article on November 10. 

Bahloul told SMEX that Jaffel initiated a lawsuit against him, under Article 24 of Decree 54, for describing the Prime Minister as “la gentille woman” and listing the series of crises that the country has endured during her term in office in the article. “I was accused of criticizing the Prime Minister in a way that undermines public security,” Bahloul added.

Bahloul is still awaiting the second hearing in which his fate will be decided. He could be sentenced to ten years in prison “because the case involves a public employee.”

Since July 25, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied has been claiming that he faces an “imminent threat,” which he has used as a pretext to seize all powers through existing laws and new decrees that he has issued to restrict rights and freedoms in all areas.

State of Emergency Law: The President’s Last Line of Defense
On January 26, 1978, several Tunisian governorates witnessed clashes between police forces and protesters during the general strike called for by the Tunisian General Labor Union two weeks prior. On the same day, President Habib Bourguiba issued Order No. 50 of January 26, 1978, on the State of Emergency, which grants the executive branch broad powers to restrict freedoms, including the freedom of expression, the right to protest, and the right to freedom of movement. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali adopted these same measures in an attempt to quell the protests that erupted in early 2011.

It appears that President Kais Saied has taken similar steps in anticipation of the protests organized to commemorate the January 14 Revolution and the general strike declared by transport workers in the Tunisian General Labor Union, which is set to begin on January 26.

Article 8 of Order No. 50 enables authorities to “take all the necessary measures to monitor the press and all types of publications, including radio broadcasts, film screenings, and theater performances.” President Saied could resort to this article, in addition to his arsenal of laws that restrict freedoms.

Attorney Naceur Laouini told SMEX that Order No. 50 “allows for monitoring the press, publications and radio broadcasts, which is an ad hoc measure designed by Bourguiba to subvert the strike called for by the Tunisian General Labor Union. While it is true that Saied cannot use the State of Emergency Law to suppress the freedom of expression on Facebook, he can enforce the law on all those who call for protests on social media, by subjecting them to house arrest under Articles 4 and 5 of the Order.”

In addition, Article 9 of Order No. 50 imposes a prison sentence of up to two years on any person who violates its provisions by “attempting to obstruct the activity of public authorities in any way,” which is punishable by house arrest. However, Tunisian authorities have prosecuted some of the people calling for protests on their Facebook pages by Decree 54 and the Penal Code. 

For example, rights activist Hamza Abidi was arrested on January 4 after publishing a post on his private Facebook page, calling upon people to take to the streets and protest. Abidi was accused of incitement to disobedience under Decree 54. However, the charges against him have been dismissed. 

His case is similar to that of activist Mohammad Lazhar Ibrahim, who was arrested for 15 days for publishing a post in which he said: “All provinces should revolt on January 14. We should not return to our homes until the imbecile is deposed.” Ibrahim was charged with insulting the President of the Republic under Article 67 of the Penal Code before the case against him was dismissed.

During President Saied’s three years in office, Tunisia suffered from social and economic crises, which Saied sought to address by issuing decrees that restricted people’s rights. In addition to the controversial Decree 54, the Tunisian president issued Decree No. 14 at the beginning of 2022 in an attempt to address the shortage of food items such as oil, sugar, and flour. This decree, described by Amnesty International as a threat to the freedom of expression, accuses anyone who “spreads false news and misinformation that could disrupt the market or discourage consumers from purchasing products” of committing speculation, a crime punishable by up to thirty years in prison.

Later this month, Tunisians will celebrate the twelfth anniversary of the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, but their celebrations will be marred by the arsenal of decrees issued by President Saied, which renege on many of the rights that the Tunisian people asserted more than a decade ago.

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Najla Ben Salah

Najla Ben Salah is a Tunisian journalist with Nawaat.org. She writes about social and human rights issues for local and foreign media.