Is Tunisia Rolling Back Freedom of Information?

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaking to the media during the 2016 World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly which took place in Tunisia. Photo by the ITU, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

The Tunisian government is facing accusations of rolling back access to information and media freedom, through its regulation of information and communication units in ministries, state agencies and other government institutions.

Last month, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed issued circular n°4 of 15 January 2017 asking civil servants not to speak to the press and not to reveal official information unless they get the authorization of their hierarchy:

Out of respect to the duties of civil servants in their relation with media outlets, as outlined in the code of conduct and ethics of the public servant, they [civil servants] are refrained from making statements or interventions, or disclosing official information or documents in the press or by any other means, related to their functions or to the public structures they work for without the preliminary and explicit authorization of their hierarchy

The circular further bans civil servants from making statements that “breach professional secrecy and the preservation of the state's high interests”, preventing “the disclosure of official information and documents that should or can be made available to the public”, and making “misleading or false statements” in relation to their work and the institution they serve.

The circular is, in fact, in line with existing regulations that organize the relation of public servants to the media. Government decree n°4030 of 4 October 2014 on the code of conduct and ethics of the public servants, in section 2 of its third chapter, already bans public servants from making statements to the media and disclosing public information without the authorization of their hierarchical superiors or the directors of the public institutions they work at.

The circular's publication was not only slammed by civil society organizations in the country, but also revived criticism of the public servants’ code of conduct, more specifically those provisions that regulate the operation of communication and information units at public institutions, agencies and ministries.

On 9 February, fifteen local and international organizations, including the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights and the free-speech NGO Article 19, released a statement calling on the government to “review decree 4030 and immediately withdraw circular n°4″. The organizations condemned what they describe as “increased restrictions on journalists, civil society organizations and citizens [seeking] to access information from public institutions”.

As part of its democratic reforms, Tunisia has made progress when it comes to access to information. In 2016, the constitutional right to access information was reinforced by the parliament's adoption of a freedom of information law (Law n°22 of 24 March 2016 on access to information). The law guarantees access to information held by government bodies including ministries, the presidency, publicly funded NGOs, the parliament, local municipalities, the central bank and constitutional bodies. The law prescribes fines against those who obstruct access to information, and establishes an access to information commission tasked with deciding on appeals for access to information requests.

However, the law's implementation remains limited and the commission on access to information has not been established yet. It is no surprise that the government's issuing of circular 4 was slammed by journalists and civil society organizations, who are already unhappy with the slow translation of these legal reforms into action.

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