Tunisia moving forward with restrictive bill for press

New York June 17, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the adoption by the Tunisian Chamber of Deputies on Tuesday of a bill that reinforces an existing arsenal of legislation used to silence critical journalists. President Ben Ali is expected to sign the bill after its anticipated approval by the Chamber of Councilors. The change is unconstitutional since it violates freedom of expression as guaranteed by Tunisian constitution, according to CPJ research.

Under the bill, which amends Article 61a of the penal code, any Tunisian who establishes “contacts with agents of a foreign power or a foreign organization with a view to inciting them to harm the vital interests” of Tunisia and its “economic security” will be sanctioned, the official news agency, TAP, reported on Wednesday. Sanctions vary from five years in prison in times of peace to 12 years in times of war, lawyers told CPJ. 
“We are alarmed by the continued escalation of the war on free expression in Tunisia and are concerned about the well-being of our colleagues, who are among the prime targets for this restrictive bill,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “We call on President Ben Ali, who has repeatedly demonstrated his control over all branches of government, to abide by international standards for freedom of expression and not sign this legislation into law.”
The bill was rapidly approved by the lower chamber of parliament, which is controlled by President Ben Ali’s ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally, at a time when government critics are targeted by a state-backed smear campaign echoed by the state-run media, according to CPJ research. Journalists recently called on the European Union not to grant Tunisia “advanced [trading] status” unless it takes concrete steps toward improving its human rights record, particularly with regard to silencing dissent. 
“This bill and its vague provisions would constitute a major threat to fundamental rights, particularly freedom of expression and opinion,” Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, the first of its kind in the Arab world and among the most harassed NGOs in the country, told CPJ. “It’s rather catastrophic to see Tunisians still denied the right to discuss any important issue.” 
Attacks on independent journalists intensified in tenor and frequency immediately following the fifth-term reelection of Ben Ali in October 2009 with nearly 90 percent of the vote. Two critical journalists, Taoufik Ben Brik and Zouhair Makhlouf, have been jailed for six and four months, respectively, for their work. Next week, an appeals court in the southern city of Gafsa will consider whether to uphold a four-year jail term handed to journalist Fahem Boukadous for covering social protests in 2008. Furthermore, over the past months, Slim Bagga, Sihem Bensedrine, and Taoufik Ben Brik, all prominent critical journalists, have been referred to as “traitors” by the state-run media and have consequently received death threats, according to CPJ research.