Seven years jail for a Facebook post: Tunisia's not-so-social media

Last week, UK Attorney General Dominic Grieve announced he would be publishing guidance on social media use to help people stay on the right side of the law.

Let’s hope he doesn’t look to Tunisia for inspiration when determining social media rights from wrongs. The epicentre of the "Arab Spring", things looked encouraging back in 2011, as the authorities promised to protect free speech and dismantle the agencies responsible for state censorship.

But in the last couple of years Tunisian authorities have regressed to reinforcing Ben Ali-era laws, forbidding publication of anything that "disturbs public order and morals" or "violates sacred values".

It’s these laws that blogger Jabeur Mejri fell foul of when he published a picture of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. Instead of allowing Jabeur to freely express his opinion, the Tunisian authorities sentenced him to seven and a half years in prison, and imposed a hefty fine. Jabeur’s punishment sent a message to other writers, bloggers and journalists: don’t dare speak out.

And their intimidation tactics, depressingly, might be working. Lena Ben Mhenni, the blogger "A Tunisian Girl", recently spoke to Amnesty: "I feel threatened, just for blogging and criticising the government and the awful, regressing situation in Tunisia. I feel like I have lost my own freedom while trying to fight for my country and my people’s freedom. If we don't react to what is happening, every subject will soon become taboo."

Jabeur isn’t the only one who’s been targeted under these repressive laws. Last year TV chief Nabil Karoui was fined for "spreading information which could disturb public order", just for broadcasting the animated film Persepolis. Journalists Sofiene Chourabi and Mehdi Jlassi were arrested for "public drunkenness" and "harming public morals", one day after Sofiene had called for a protest in front of Tunisia’s Interior Ministry against restrictions on public freedoms.

Many of Tunisia’s bloggers have started calling Jabeur their first "opinion prisoner", or prisoner of conscience. It’s a cruel irony that their new president, Moncef Marzouki, was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience himself in 1994. He was arrested and charged with – wait for it – spreading information liable to "disturb public order". The very laws he’s using to repress opinion and criticism now.

President Marzouki could do well to remember his time in front of the judge, and being arbitrarily silenced because he disagreed with the authorities. Disagreement – on politics, religion, on what might be offensive or disturbs public order – can never be enough justification for fines and jail sentences. People like Jabeur wanted a new, tolerant Tunisia in 2011, and it’s in the President’s power to give it to them.

You can stand with Jabeur and everyone speaking out in Tunisia by signing our petition to free Jabeur and overturn his sentence. Help get Jabeur Mejri home.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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