Reporters Without Borders is closely following an investigation by the public prosecutor's office into blogger Olfa Riahi's claims that foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem misused public funds by staying at the Tunis Sheraton Hotel. The allegations caused a big stir when Riahi posted them on her blog last month and have been dubbed the "Sheratongate" by the Tunisian press.
Two days after prosecutors opened the investigation on 31 December, the foreign minister's lawyers gave them a complaint accusing Riahi of violating article 86 of the telecommunications code, articles 89 and 90 of Law 63-2004 on the protection of privacy, articles 126, 148 and 253 of the criminal code, and finally article 54 of Decree Law 115-2011 (the new press law).
However, when Riahi appeared in court in Tunis on 15 January (one day after the second anniversary of the Tunisian revolution), she was unexpectedly questioned as a witness and not as a defendant, as previously announced.
This was because, although Riahi was initially charged in connection with the foreign minister's complaint, her lawyers drew attention to many procedural flaws and convinced the investigating judge that she should be questioned on the basis of article 31 of the criminal code.
This article says: "In the event of a complaint with insufficient grounds or justification, the state prosecutor can ask the investigating judge to provisionally investigate an unnamed person until new charges can be brought or until new accusations against named persons are justified."
Although now regarded as just a witness, Riahi is still forbidden to leave the country. Reporters Without Borders calls for the lifting of this ban, which was imposed earlier this month. "All of the offences cited in the foreign minister's complaint are punishable by imprisonment and together could add up to several years in prison, which is a complete aberration," Reporters Without Borders said.
"This ill-conceived investigation is targeting the wrong person and unfortunately proves that the decriminalization of media offences is still not on the agenda in Tunisia. The justice system must nonetheless bear in mind that use of the freedom of expression should never result in imprisonment, even when misuse is proven."
Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the use of the criminal code, the telecommunications code, and the 2004 law on the protection of privacy in the foreign minister's complaint, as well as the new press law (Decree Law 115-2011), article 13 of which says that journalists "cannot be prosecuted in connection with their work if a violation of this decree-law's provisions is not proven."
Reporters Without Borders calls for the repeal of all legal provisions that contradict Decree Law 115-2011 and for recognition of this law's exclusive nature. We also urge the justice ministry to issue a circular about this law to judges, who are for the most part unaware of it. "We do not think that journalists and netizens are above the law but we are convinced that there are laws appropriate to their mission of providing news and information," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "Those responsible for rendering justice still suffer from repressive attitudes and an inability to distinguish between media offences and criminal offences, attitudes that are a hangover from the dictatorship."
The fact that Riahi does not have a press card should not exclude her from Decree Law 115-2011's protection. This would be unjust. Firstly, because this new law has been applied only partially, press cards are not yet being issued in accordance with it. And secondly, it must be obvious to the prosecutor's office that, as a netizen, Riahi is providing news and information.
In its analysis of Decree Law 115-2011, Reporters Without Borders highlighted the danger of a restrictive interpretation, arguing: "If, for administrative purposes, someone must have a press card to be regarded as journalist, this provision should not deny the law's protection to any other person whose mission is the provision of news and information."
Decree Law 115-2011 should cover the entire area of freedom of expression and should constitute a minimal standard of protection for all Tunisian journalists and bloggers.