Tunisia’s New Constitution: An Eleventh-Hour Victory for Press Freedom | Freedom House

Tunisia’s New Constitution: An Eleventh-Hour Victory for Press Freedom

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This week, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution, taking a crucial step forward in the democratic transition that began after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The constitution has been widely hailed for its guarantees of fundamental human rights and civil liberties, including freedom of conscience, due process, and freedom of worship. But if Tunisian activists had not lobbied vigorously for the last-minute passage of amendments to safeguard media independence, the new constitution might have been received as a major defeat for freedom of the press.

On January 15, the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), the country’s media regulator, released a statement on Facebook that criticized two articles of the draft constitution for threatening to circumscribe the “independence” and “impartiality” of Tunisian media.

The disputed provisions were Articles 122 and 124. Article 124 would effectively reduce the powers of HAICA—even as it expanded the body’s mandate—by giving it an advisory role rather than true regulatory authority. Article 122 would open the door to politicization of the agency by requiring its membership to be elected by the parliament, potentially altering the current mixture of government officials and civil society representatives. Together, these articles were seen as a thinly veiled attempt by the government to either influence HAICA or marginalize it to the point of irrelevance.

Since its founding by legislative decree in May 2013, the authority had emerged as a staunch advocate for media freedom and a thorn in the side of the transitional government. For example, HAICA blasted the government for its role in a controversial shakeup of the public radio sector, in which officials favorable to the ruling party were given senior positions. The regulator similarly condemned an August 17 police crackdown on journalists who went on strike to protest the appointments. HAICA also played an active role in organizing workshops designed to strengthen the capacity of the media sector. However, as the Constituent Assembly gathered in mid-January 2014 to begin final voting on articles of the draft constitution, it was clear that this regulatory gadfly was about to be swatted.

With only a few days remaining before the conclusion of the voting process, Tunisian civil society mobilized behind amendments that would address the problems with Articles 122 and 124.

On January 17, the head of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, Nejiba Hamrouni, met with members of the National Constituent Assembly as well as Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki to lobby for the proposed amendments. Hamrouni, a well-known freedom of expression activist, pledged to organize protests at the headquarters of the assembly should the flawed articles move forward without revisions. Fortunately, the delegates voted on and adopted the proposed changes. The final versions of the two articles granted HAICA increased regulatory authority and eased concerns over its composition. Although the text did not meet all of the demands of the journalists’ union, it was ultimately described by Hamrouni as “a success.”

The revised language is not just a victory for press freedom and the media sector, but also a triumph for Tunisia’s growing civil society. That a civic association was able to freely organize and effectively lobby for legislative action without facing undue government pressure epitomizes the gains in civil liberties achieved by Tunisia since the revolution, as observed in the 2014 edition of Freedom in the World. It should be noted, however, that major challenges to press freedom persist, including politically motivated harassment of journalists and legal charges for publishing material deemed offensive to Islam. This placed Tunisia squarely in the Partly Free category in the most recent edition of Freedom of the Press.

Tunisia has reached a major milestone with the adoption of the new constitution, but its passage is, to paraphrase Churchill, only the end of the beginning. Vigilance is needed to ensure that the promise of the constitution is fulfilled in practice. Fortunately, Tunisian civil society will be watching closely.

Photo: Screengrab from Al Jazeera

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