September 23, 2022

Tunisia just passed a law that would imprison purveyors of “disinformation” for up to five years. Critics of the law — which include political opponents of Tunisian President Kais Saied, journalists and fact-checkers — denounce it as a mechanism to uniformly punish dissent.

The United States recently pushed Tunisian leaders to strengthen democratic measures, which have lost ground since the Arab Spring took place more than a decade ago. For example, President Saied consolidated power last year by firing the prime minister and blocking the parliament, justifying it with a provision in the Tunisian constitution for states of emergencies.

The Tunisian law resembles similar proposed laws in the region, including a Turkish disinformation law that would impose three-year sentences. In the United States, a “disinformation governance board,” overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, failed to gain traction over authoritarian concerns.

In 2020, Access Now, an international civil society group, condemned a disinformation bill in Tunisia, writing that “although countering disinformation during this crisis is a legitimate aim, this proposal is a direct threat to freedom of expression online. Most of its provisions are dedicated to muzzling journalists and activists, as well as exercising control over them through intimidation and by limiting access to the information necessary to document any rights violations that may take place under these circumstances.”

Reporters Without Borders, the international media nongovernmental organization responsible for the World Press Freedom Index, urged Tunisia’s government to “quickly repeal (the) unprecedented new decree criminalizing ‘rumors and fake news’ because it threatens press freedom, one of the most important gains of the country’s pro-democracy revolution in 2011.”

Article 19, an advocacy organization that takes its name for the United Nations’ declaration of human rights, issued a statement calling on the president to scrap the law, saying it “undermines free expression and the press.”

“The signatories deplore this law issued by the Presidency of the Republic at this delicate period for the country’s political environment. The decree-law threatens the essence of freedom of expression and the press ahead of legislative elections scheduled to take place on 17 December 2022, and we call the President of the Republic to withdraw it,” Article 19 wrote. “The decree-law contains unprecedented restrictions, the application of which would lead to the intimidation of journalists and other communicators expressing their opinions, especially with reference to state agents and political officials.”

“Without a doubt, we encourage the fight against misinformation on all levels, as misinformation represents a real danger in the MENA region,” said Moath Althaher, the founder of Fatabyyano, a fact-checking platform that does work across 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. “But on the other hand, we are worried that these laws could be exploited by politicians and governments to put restrictions on journalists and freedom of speech. These laws must be clear, defined, regulated and transparent.”

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Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

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