The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, is alarmed by ongoing attacks targeting journalists, artists, performers and women for the "crime" of freely expressing their opinion as well as by the Tunisian security forces' alleged inaction during most of these instances in the past year. Furthermore, the IFEX-TMG condemns the use of force by police or other parties against journalists covering demonstrations, as well as long sentences for Facebook users on religious morality charges.
In an extremely alarming development, on 28 March, Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri were sentenced to over seven years in prison for posting online manuscripts critical of Islam which included caricatures of a naked Prophet Mohammed. This comes just a fortnight after authorities announced 13 March would be marked as the national day for internet freedom.
A recent string of attacks have been carried out by individuals, some of whom have been alledgedly identified as Salafists, a conservative group of Sunni Muslims who approach Islamic theology from a literal point of view.
Amongst those targeted were artists, academics, journalists as well as media personnel and institutions. The most recent attack based on religious motivations, occurred on 22 March, when a theatre group performing on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis was attacked by Salafists. The police are said to have intervened much later and rather than protect the thespians and their equipment from the attack, moved them into the nearby Municipal Theatre.
Rather than protecting freedom of expression, the authorities have since banned demonstrations on Habib Bourguiba, the city's main street, which was a symbolic place of resistance for the revolution. On 28 March, the Ministry of the interior banned "all demonstrations, marches and any other form of collective expression" on the Avenue.
Furthermore, police violently attacked peaceful demonstrations held in different cities on 7, 8 and 9 April to protest unemployment and social injustice. Police beat demonstrators with batons and fired teargas at them during a protest on 9 April on Avenue Habib Bourguiba by around a thousand people, defying the ban on protests on the capital's main thoroughfare. Journalists were reportedly beaten during a demonstration in Sfax on 8 April, and then 14 journalists were beaten in Tunis on 9 April.
This follows a pattern of police abuse. In January 2012, two women journalists Sana Farhat and Maha Ouelhezi were physically assaulted by plainclothes police in Tunis as they were covering a demonstration organised by university teachers calling for academic freedom outside the Ministry of Education. Journalists were also attacked violently by police while covering a union protest in Tunis on 28 February.
Meanwhile, Director of the privately-owned Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, is facing charges of blasphemy and disturbing public order for the screening of the animated film Persepolis in October 2011. The trial has been postponed a number of times and is now set for 19 April 2012.
The airing of Persepolis in October led to protests in Tunis because it contained a scene depicting God, which is considered forbidden by Islam. A week later, a crowd damaged Karoui's home in Tunis with Molotov cocktails.
There has been little protection for those being attacked, including during a sit-in at Manouba University protesting the banning of niqab-wearing students from sitting for their exams that became violent. Not only did security forces fail to intervene to prevent demonstrators from becoming violent and disrupting classes, but there were no arrests made. Professor Fatma Jegham was attacked with impunity by Salafists last year at the Fine Arts University in Tunis for teaching a subject deemed "offensive to God."
Not all recent violations of the right to free expression have been motivated by religious doctrine. On 24 March, celebrated journalist and Al-Jazeera journalist Lotffi Hajji was attacked physically and verbally as he was reporting from a meeting organised by supporters of the former Interim Prime Minister Caid Essebsi.
While all citizens reserve the right to protest against speech or an act they deem offensive, the IFEX-TMG and its local Tunisian partners have been campaigning to raise awareness that obstructing or interfering with their fellow-citizens' rights to express their views is a violation of free expression, an intrinsic right and a basic building stone for any democracy, and one that must be enshrined in the Constitution.
While Said Ferjani, a leader in the ruling Ennahda political party, said they aim to protect the choice of wearing "the bikini or the Burqa", more is needed to protect all citizens from the intolerant acts of individuals and groups.
"We call on the government to put its rhetoric into action by taking practical steps such as training their security forces on positively interacting with protesters, sensitising them on how to work with the media and on actively stepping in to protect the right to free expression so that citizens can enjoy this fundamental right without the fear of retribution," said Virginie Jouan, Chair of the IFEX-TMG.
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