A law used to limit freedom of expression under the dictatorship of Zine Abidine Ben Ali has been called upon for a second time since the revolution in a case relating to religious morality. The event has led human rights activists to question the government’s commitment to free speech.
As Tunisia Live reported yesterday, Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri were recently sentenced to seven years and half in prison and fined 1200 Tunisian Dinars (800 US Dollars) after they posted caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and unpublished manuscripts critical of Islam that were deemed to be offensive. Mejri and Beji were sentenced to 5 and a half years in prison and fined 1200 Tunisian Dinars (US$800) for sharing content online judged to violate Article 121 of the Tunisian Penal Code. The article prohibits “the distribution, sale, exhibition to the public and possession for distribution, the sale, exposure for purposes of propaganda, likely to harm public order or morality.” It continues by stating that “any breach of the prohibition in the preceding paragraph may result, in addition to the immediate seizure, imprisonment for 6 months to 5 years and a fine of 120 to 1,200 dinars.”
The additional two years of Beji’s and Mejri’s sentences were added for violating Article 86 of the Tunisian Communication Code which states that those who bring harm to others across networks of public communications may face a sentence up to two years in prison and a fine ranging from 100 Tunisian dinars to 1000 Tunisian dinars.”
Article 121 of Tunisian penal code is considered by some lawyers to be too broadly defined, as it does not set precise standards for public morality and decency and leaves a space for subjective interpretation of relative notions.
This same law was used last February in the case of Nasreddine Ben Saida, the publisher of Tunisian daily newspaper Attounisia that ran a photo of a half-naked woman on its front page. After spending 8 days in prison, and sparking a national controversy in Tunisia over the limits of freedom of expression, Ben Saida was subsequently fined 1000 Tunisian Dinars.
Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist, said that though she was personally shocked by the content posted by the two men, she thinks that sentencing them to seven years in prison is not the solution.
“We are in a situation where the use of the law has become abusive,” she said.
The General Prosecutor of the Primary Court of Mahdia, where the complaint was initially filed against Jabeur Mejri, stated that the verdict is preliminary and that the sentence may be reduced or even canceled after the appeal.
Someone filed a lawsuit against Mejri because he shared caricatures of the prophet on his Facebook page. After that we caught him in the act as we found the offending content on his laptop, he explained. Beji was charged following information Mejri gave to the police during interrogation, according to Mohamed Trabelsi, Beji’s lawyer.
When asked about the judge’s decision to impose a maximum sentence, Chokri Nafti, press attaché of the Ministry of Justice asserted that the judge “is independent and free to choose the minimal or the maximal sentence.” He argued that “as long the judge respects the law and does not arrive at a verdict that contradicts the law, we cannot interfere in the decision of the court.
Belhaj Hmida attributed the controversy to the absence of national dialogue. After the revolution, we should have engaged in a debate involving different factions of society to reach a consensus over whether there will be limits on freedom of expression or not, said Haj Hmida.
Following the Revolution in 2011, Tunisians, who had been deprived of the right to freedom of expression, suddenly found themselves in a state of unregulated freedom due to the legal void. However, as Haj Hmida argued, some people appointed themselves as protectors of morality and are now trying to repress freedoms.
Haj Hamida said that Tunisian civil society is closely following the development of the situation of freedom of expression in Tunisia.