New constitution must not deprive Tunisians of hard-won freedoms
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is very concerned about the threat to press freedom posed by Tunisia’ proposed new constitution and calls for this freedom to be safeguarded. Unveiled by President Kais Saied on 30 June and amended by him on 8 July, the draft constitution will be put to a referendum on 25 July.
“Tunisia is once again on the road to personal power, which runs completely counter to the progress made by Tunisians in terms of individual freedoms since the January 2011 revolution,” said Khaled Drareni, RSF’s North Africa representative. “RSF calls for clear safeguards for fundamental freedoms, including press freedom, without such safeguards having to depend solely on a presidential initiative.”
RSF stresses its concern about the disturbing path that Tunisia could take after this constitutional referendum in just three days’ time, a referendum engineered and imposed by President Saied.
On 8 July, the president announced amendments to his proposed constitution without changing its essence. RSF responded by reiterating its call for safeguards for fundamental freedoms, including press freedom, without their having to depend on solely on the president’s initiative. The two amended articles refer to the role of Islam and to rights and freedoms.
Article 55, on rights and freedoms, was amended by the addition of “required by a democratic regime.” The article now says: “No restriction may be made to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by this constitution, except by means of a law and for a necessity required by a democratic regime and with the aim of protecting the rights of others, or for the needs of public security, national defence or public health.”
This amendment clearly made a very minimal change to the version initially proposed by the president, and the restrictions on freedoms allowed by article 55 are likely to become the rule in the absence of adequate safeguards.
This article’s supposed guarantee is voided of any meaning by the way the separation of powers is undermined in the proposed constitution, which gives the president broad legislative powers at the expense of the checks and balances that have existed until now. The weakening of judicial independence also raises fears that judicial interpretation of restrictions on freedoms will serve political interests under the guise of addressing supposed security imperatives.
If approved on 25 July, the anniversary of the Tunisian republic’s proclamation, the new constitution will establish a hyper-presidential system and perpetuate what has already existed in practice since parliament’s suspension and then dissolution on 30 March and that of the Superior Judicial Council two months before that.
The unveiling of the proposed new constitution – much awaited in Tunisia and abroad –confirmed the concerns previously voiced by civil society and journalists. Although it proclaims freedom of the press and information, there are deep reservations certain articles which could undermine effective safeguards for freedoms, especially freedom of expression and press freedom.
The Tunisian Association for the Defence of Individual Freedoms said: “Despite recognising certain new rights and freedoms, such as the right of the freedom of the individual (article 26), the draft constitution poses a serious problem as regards the limits it places on rights and freedoms.”
As well as article 55’s restrictions on freedoms, there is also concern about the independence of media regulation and, in particular, about the elimination of the Independent High Authority for Broadcast Communication (HAICA), which made a major contribution to the protection of press freedom in the broadcast media.
Although he had chaired the commission responsible for drafting the constitution, Sadok Belaid, the former dean of Tunis University's law faculty, said after the final version’s publication: “Saied’s draft constitution entails serious risks that could pave the way for a dictatorial regime.”
RSF has repeatedly urged the Tunisian authorities to make respect for press freedom one of their priorities. Another message to this effect was issued in September 2021, after Najla Bouden’s appointment as prime minister. RSF asked him to implement Tunisia's commitments to journalistic freedom, independence and pluralism on the basis of Chapter 2 of the Tunisian constitution and Tunisia’s international obligations.
It is now clear that these commitments have not been kept, as Tunisia’s journalists’ associations have themselves noted. This accounts for the enormous leap backwards now under way as regards press freedom and, as a result of its ambiguity, the draft constitution is part of this regression. The control exercised by the executive over parliament and various state entities has also contributed to weakening freedoms in general, and press freedom in particular.
Political and judicial harassment of journalists is growing, and many journalists have had recent run-ins with the police and justice system. They include Chahrazed Akacha, who was placed in preventive detention on 15 April in connection with his Facebook posts and then released the next day. Another journalist, Salah Attia, was placed in police custody at a military court’s behest on 12 June after he told Al Jazeera: “Tunisian President Kais Saied asked the military authorities to surround the Tunisian General Labour Union’s headquarters, which the army refused to do.”