27.09.2012 - Communication & Information Sector

Tunisian Constituent Assembly and UNESCO discuss freedom of expression and information

International experts: Toby Mendel, Bambang Harymurti and Joe Tholoe - © UNESCO/M. Benchelah

The Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the body responsible for drafting a new Tunisian constitution after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, welcomed international experts, provided by UNESCO, on 2 and 3 July 2012 for presentations of different models of constitutions guaranteeing freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right of access to information.

The sessions were held in the hall of the former palace Le Bardo with members of the Commission on the Preamble and Fundamental Values and the Commission on Rights and Freedoms, which are responsible for developing the first two chapters of the future Tunisian constitution. Farida Laabidi, Chairwoman of the Committee on Rights and Freedoms, opened the session with Mehdi Benchelah, Head of the UNESCO Project Office in Tunis. Professor of constitutional law at the Institute of Gabes, Ali Radhouane Ghrab, moderated the sessions.

Three international experts - Joseph Thloloe, Ombudsman of the Press Council of South Africa; Bambang Harymurti, Vice-President of the Press Council of Indonesia and director of the weekly magazine Tempo; and Toby Mendel, director of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Canada - presented to members of both committees different models of constitutions that protect freedom of expression and the right of access to information. They also addressed the specific challenges faced by countries emerging from dictatorial regimes to ensure these fundamental rights.

With more than 50 years of experience as a journalist, media director and defender of freedom of the press, Thloloe explained the process that led to South Africa’s 1996 adoption a constitution guaranteeing democratic principles after the fall of apartheid. Thloloe’s account of spending years in prison and being exiled from his country under the apartheid regime for defending freedom of the press particularly resonated with Tunisian members of the NCA, many of whom had also experienced prison and exile under Ben Ali.

"I must admit that I envy you,” Thloloe said, addressing the members of the NCA. “You have the power to write on a blank sheet the future constitution of your country. It is a unique privilege, a magnificent task.”

After outlining the principles contained in the South African constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression and the restrictive definition of its limits, Thloloe described the system of self-regulation of the press in force in his country. Thloloe concluded his presentation by saying, "The measure of freedom in a country is the level of opinions with which you disagree that you accept. If you decide to control [these opinions], then you return to the starting point.”

Harymurti, the vice-president of the Press Council of Indonesia, described how his country managed, after several unsuccessful attempts, to enact constitutional amendments guaranteeing fundamental democratic principles and in particular freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

"We failed twice to establish democracy in Indonesia. We hope that you will be more vigilant and intelligent than us," he said.

Harymurti, who was jailed for publishing articles against corruption in his weekly magazine, warned the Tunisian constituents of the importance of including these principles as basic law in the most clear and precise way as possible.

"Freedom of expression and press freedom are democracy’s first line of defense,” Harymurti said. “Once these freedoms have fallen, others fade. This is why people in Indonesia are so committed to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and we prefer to be killed rather than give up these freedoms.”

Toby Mendel of Canada stressed the importance of guaranteeing in the constitution the right to freedom of opinion and expression for all and of prohibiting prior censorship of media without a court decision. He also explained the importance of including in the future constitution the independence of regulatory bodies on public and private audiovisual media.

Expert presentations were followed by many questions and a lively discussion with committee members of the NCA that included the issue of blasphemy against religion and the role of press freedom during Tunisia’s transition period. Recalling international standards in the field of freedom of expression (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Tunisia in 1969, and the decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee), experts recommended that “it is prohibited to intentionally advocate national, racial or religious hatred that incites people to discrimination, hostility or violence, but criticism of religion or belief that does not constitute incitement is protected. (See recommendations of experts to NCA).

To illustrate the importance of ensuring freedom of expression, Harymurti ended his speech by telling a parable of the Safi mystic Rumi: “Many people entered a dark house where there was an elephant. Unable to see, they felt [the elephant] with their hands. They each had the impression of being faced with something totally different. Then, they expressed the qualities they saw and they came gradually to realize that they were in the presence of an elephant."

From this parable, Harymurti concluded: “The claims of these individuals varied according to what they had seen. As in society, it is freedom of expression that allows us to overcome our limited perceptions and achieve a more accurate view of reality.”

The project "Support for the reform of the legislative framework for media in Tunisia” aims to provide expertise on freedom of expression and access to information to the Tunisian authorities in order to foster an environment conducive to the development of free, independent and pluralistic media, which in turn contribute to the flourishing of democracy. This project has received support from Bulgaria and Norway.

The three experts wrote recommendations in accordance with international standards following the sessions with the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) on 2 and 3 July 2012 in Tunis. These recommendations were sent to the members of the NCA Commission on the Preamble and Fundamental Values and the Commission on Rights and Freedoms.

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