Tunisian journalism threatened by decree criminalising “rumours and fake news”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Tunisia’s government to quickly repeal an unprecedented new decree criminalising “rumours and fake news” because it threatens press freedom, one of the most important gains of the country’s pro-democracy revolution in 2011.
"Using censorship and bans on the provision of news and information to combat disinformation and fake news is the wrong choice. This draconian law is intended to dissuade journalists from doing their job. It aims to create a climate of fear and push professionals to censor themselves – an absurd choice that will just facilitate the fake news this decree is supposed to combat. It must be repealed without delay.
Tunisia’s journalists began voicing concern about the undemocratic nature of this decree when its imminent publication was announced several weeks ago. Their fears proved to be amply justified when they finally read the text of the decree that was promulgated and published in the government newspaper on 16 September.
Section 24, entitled “Rumours and fake news,” is particularly alarming. It says that knowingly using information and communication systems and networks to produce, spread, broadcast, send, or write false news, false data, rumours, false documents or documents that are falsified or falsely attributed to others, with the aim of infringing the rights of others or prejudicing public security or national defence or sowing terror among the population is punishable by five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars (15,670 euros), or up to 10 years in prison “if the person targeted is a public official or similar.”
Potential threat to many international undertakings
Although it specifies penalties, the decree provides no definition of “fake news” and “rumour.” By letting the security services and prosecutors interpret it as they see fit, the decree could be used to legitimise attacks on press freedom and the right to inform and to be informed. It could be used to criminalise journalism, challenge journalists’ right to the confidentiality of their sources and undermine many of the Tunisian state's international commitments.
It is not only Tunisian journalists who are threatened. The freedom of foreign journalists could also be curtailed by a provision that says that, even if committed abroad, a Section 24 violation could be prosecuted in Tunisia if “committed against Tunisian parties or interests.” In other words, foreign reporters writing for foreign readers in foreign publications could face prosecution in Tunisia if deemed to have made false claims with the aim of harming Tunisian interests.
The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) has called for the decree’s withdrawal on the grounds that it violates Tunisia’s constitution, Tunisia’s international obligations regarding human rights and press freedom, and the principle of proportional penalties. The decree is evidence that the current government “aims to install a political and legal system hostile to rights and freedoms,” the SNJT said.
Tunisia is experiencing a major political crisis marked by threats to the 2011 revolution’s democratic gains and a return to authoritarianism. In July 2021, President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended parliament, before going on to dissolve it. He also reined in judicial independence.
The president’s actions were initially welcomed by many Tunisians who were tired of the spectacle of endless discord and disputes in parliament. But criticism has grown in the wake of a series of draconian presidential decrees heralding a dangerous return to the era of authoritarianism and dictatorship. Nearly three quarters of Tunisians did not turn out for the 25 July referendum on Saied’s new constitution, which was approved by 94.5% of those that did vote.
This latest decree targets press freedom, widely regarded as one of the most important achievements of the 2011 pro-democracy revolution.