[JURIST] Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] on Wednesday urged [press release] Tunisian authorities to repeal a law that criminalizes defamation. The call comes after two Tunisian citizens were charged with defamation for publicly exposing alleged wrongdoing of Tunisian officials. The men face up to two years in prison if convicted of the criminal charges. HRW stated that the Tunisian law does not conform with international laws protecting freedom of expression and that defamation is a civil, and not criminal, offense in the international community. Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, denounced the law and urged reform:
Criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and work against the public interest by deterring people from speaking out about corruption or other misconduct by public officials. It is high time that Tunisia consigned its oppressive criminal defamation legislation to the dustbin of history.
HRW also contends that public officials should “tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.” Defamation is defined in Article 245 of Tunisia’s Penal Code as “any allegation or public imputation of a fact that harms the honor or the esteem of a person or official body.” Defaming an individual or state institution is punishable with a fine and up to six months in prison, while defaming a public official carries a punishment of up to two years.
Tunisia has faced international criticism for failing to uphold its international human rights obligations. Last month UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] spoke out [JURIST report] against the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a political opposition leader in Tunsia who was killed by gunfire outside of his home, and called for an investigation into his death. Pillay described Belaid as “a prominent defender of human rights and democratic values, and a firm opponent of political violence” which he “publicly condemned as ‘a blow against the democratic process in the country.'” In January, the UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice [official website] called on the government of Tunisia [JURIST report] to adopt stronger constitutional measures to combat gender inequality [press release] and discrimination, while accelerating the participation of women in all aspects of society. In October, HRW called on Tunisian authorities to investigate a series of attacks [JURIST report] by religious extremists, and to bring those responsible to justice.