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Union organizations and journalists in Tunisia held a general strike to protest the limits on free expression by the ruling party, particularly the criminal prosecution of journalists accused of defaming public officials.

After President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011, Ennahda promised to push for a new constitution and replace the dictatorship with democracy.

The moderate Islamic party, though slow to draft a new constitution, was praised for promising to ensure freedom of expression, religion and equal rights for women and also agreeing to remove all mention of Islamic law from the Tunisian Constitution.

The 2012 Freedom House report upgraded Tunisia’s status to “partly free” because the draft constitution contained provisions protecting press freedom, restrictive laws were no longer used to imprison journalists, and formerly tight controls over the internet were relaxed “considerably.”

But in February, the president of the opposition party Arab Popular Front, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated. Five months later a second party member, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated, and Tunisian’s took to the streets in protests unmatched since the overthrow of Ben Ali.

Citizens called for the Ennahda party to step down for failing to deliver on promises.

In the last month, three journalists and one union leader were arrested for printing or airing criticism of government officials: union leader Walid Zarrouk wrote a Facebook post that criticized “the politicization of prosecutions”; a radio anchor for Express FM, Zouhaer al-Jiss, had a guest who criticized Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki; and journalist Zied al-Heni accused the government of fabricating evidence against an arrested photographer. These arrests served as the catalyst to general strikes that took place on Sept. 17.

The national union of Tunisian journalists, other union organizations and the Syndicate of Culture and Information called for the general strike. The journalists’ union said more than 90 percent of the media professionals associated with the organization were present at the protests.

Secular, leftist parties criticized the government for not yet drafting a constitution or holding elections, encouraging radical Islamic groups to join the political process, failing to hold radicals accountable and still relying on the penal codes from Ben Ali’s regime that restrict the freedoms promised to Tunisians.

Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Committee have emphasized “…that all public figures are legitimately subject to public criticism…” and that “…defamation should be treated as a civil, not a criminal issue and never punished with a prison term.”

Al Jazeera reported that the Tunisian presidency “reaffirmed its commitment to the sacred principles of freedom of expression and opinion.”

By Christine Coester. 

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