The Terrorism Law, State Security and Online Freedom of Expression

On Wednesday, 19 March 2015, the terrorist attack on Bardo National Museum, which also aimed to target the parliament of Tunisia, took 24 lives, among them 20 tourists including French, Italian, Japanese, Colombian, Polish and Spanish nationalities, and 4 Tunisians, including National Guard officers and the two perpetrators of the operation. The attack not only had a striking impact on tourism (more than 3000 booking were canceled on that day) but also had serious social, political and cultural impacts.

The attack brought into question the extent to which the Tunisian Interior Ministry measures are capable of securing the state and its citizens in an efficient way. Frightened by the events, many people started to call for more speed and determination in fighting terrorism and impeding its spread in Tunisia. Many political parties, ironically led by the Islamic party “Al Nahdha,” also embraced the same stand by calling for the ratification of the Anti-Terrorism and Money Laundering Law.

As published in the mainstream Twitter #Tunisia: “For years in power # Ennahda allowed extremism to take root, however, it now calls for the acceleration of anti-terrorist law.”

Eventually, the law was adopted by the Council of Ministers on Wednesday, 25 March 2015 and transmitted to the bureau of the House of People's Representatives (HPR) on Thursday to submit the draft to the parliamentary committees of the general legislation.

After the ratification of the law, different and contradictory reactions surfaced from citizen advocates, human rights activists, and scholars of law in Tunisia and abroad.

As Dr. Loai Deeb said on Twitter: “I consider #‎Tunisia's ratification of the anti-terrorism law as a very positive step towards promoting stability in the country which will provide security gradually.”

On the one hand, the Tunisian government succeeded in dismantling terrorist cells linked to Bardo’s attack, killing the leader of the armed terrorist group Okba Ibn Nafaa and arresting the suspects of the attack. In addition, state authorities decided to re-open the Bardo Museum for visits to assure the participation of international figures, presidents and high government officials worldwide. François Holland, Bronislaw Komorowski, Mahmoud Abbas, Matteo Renzi and Abdelmalek Sellal stood together on a walk against terrorism to Bardo museum, which proved the success of this law.

On the other hand, there is a growing concern among Tunisian activists about online freedom of expression and the restrictions on rights. The law may include calls for capital punishment, which has further triggered fear about the future of human rights & liberties in the country.

As Wafa Ben Hassine tweeted on the 23 of March: “Tunisia must not use terror-attack response to sliding back to dictatorship:”*

Ironically another tweet from ‘Ben Ben Tunisia’ tweeted ‏lso @benbentn 27 Mars: “According to art. 14 of #Tunisia anti-terror project-law: #Andreas Lubitz is definitely a #terrorist.”

Politicians, including former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, joined the camp of activists who proclaimed that it is a ‘war against terrorism.’ “Tunisia should respect human rights and privacy, resorting to tyranny won’t solve Tunisians' problem.” He called in his statement to take terrorism out of the political agenda and to focus more on the social and economic policies that Tunisian people urgently need, like job creation.

The head of Tunisian government Essid released a statement saying that the Ministries of Interior and Communication Technologies were working in joint collaboration through a specialized agency to monitor and filter sites that incite terrorism and to punish those who stand behind the perpetuation of terrorism online. According to activists, the statement revived the spirit of ancient dictatorship and reintroduced censorship and restriction on Internet end-users under the label of efficient security practices.

Despite public statements on 10 December 2012 that announced the adoption of long-overdue legislation with the establishment of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAICA) that advocates for free and pluralistic online media and press freedom in Tunisia. It is also a major contributor  to the process of democratic transition in the country.

The undersigned IFEX members noted little change regarding the implementation of the government’s media laws, particularly with respect to order 115 and 116 concerning media freedom.

Tunisia is becoming among the countries witnessing significant terrorist events and serious security threats. Under these alarming circumstances, the new government is torn between ensuring the security of its citizens by applying the counter-terrorism law articles, including media censorship and control and use of the death penalty, and growing protest by human rights activists who reject any restrictions or monitoring of liberties. They insist on the importance of freedom of expression as a means to fight terrorism. Is it then possible to reconcile between the two camps to fight terrorism?

Aicha Chebbi is a Tunisian online activist; she is an MA graduate on International Relations and Politics. She is as well a writer on online freedom of expression issue. Aicha is a policy researcher on the Intersection between Human Rights, Technology, and Constitutional law.