In a few weeks, EFF staffers will be attending the third Freedom Online Coalition conference, held this time in Tunis. In 2012, Tunisia joined the coalition of 17 states dedicated to promoting Internet freedom, thus committing itself to online free expression.
Tunisia’s commitment to Internet freedom has been impressive. After a court order threatened to re-implement censorship (this time of pornography) in 2011, the Tunisian Internet Agency fought back, taking their case to the country’s highest court. In February 2012, a long-awaited verdict was handed down by the country’s highest court, cancelling an earlier appeals court decision to block pornographic websites.
But while the Tunisian Internet Agency and Ministry of ICT are to be commended for their efforts in promoting online speech, other elements of the Tunisian government have yet to catch up. Right now, a man is being tried in a military court in the southeastern city of Sfax for criticizing a military hospital for its treatment of patients. Charged with “undermining the reputation of the army,” “defamation of a public official,” and “disturbing others through public communication networks” for the criticisms made on his blog, Warakat Tounsia, Hakim Ghanmi faces up to three years in prison plus a fine.
Trying Ghanmi for peacefully speaking his mind violates his basic right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a party. Even more shocking is the idea that a blogger would be tried in a military court for peacefully expressing his opinion, bringing to mind some of the worst offenses of the Egyptian government throughout 2011.
Despite the new freedoms gained by the revolution, it seems as though certain authorities are struggling to keep up. Ghanmi is being charged under Article 91 of the code of military justice, which authorizes up to three years imprisonment for anyone who commits “outrages against the flag or the army” or acts to “[criticize] the action of military hierarchy or military officers, offending their dignity," as well as under Article 128 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes defamation against a civil servant. He is also being charged under Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code, which criminalizes defamation as anything “harming others or disrupting their lives through public communications networks.”
Ghanmi is not the first blogger to be charged under these laws post-revolution. Last year, Olfa Riahi was charged under similar statutes, while two bloggers—one of whom fled the country—were sentenced to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of the Prophet on Facebook under Article 86, as well as Articles 226 and 121(3) of the Penal Code.
Tunisians have fought hard for the right to speak their minds. The Tunisian authorities must honor that struggle and work to repeal any laws that threaten freedom of expression.