Tunisian authorities must drop the criminal charges against a newspaper publisher and two journalists for publishing a photograph of a German-Tunisian football player and his naked girlfriend, Amnesty International said after the trial was postponed.
The Tunis Court of First Instance on Thursday ordered the release of Nasreddine Ben Saida, publisher of the Arabic daily Attounissia, postponing the case until 8 March, when a verdict is expected.
He and two journalists at the newspaper have been charged with “disrupting public order and decency”, which carries a punishment of between six months and five years’ imprisonment and a fine ranging from 120 to 1200 Dinar (US$80-800).
While protecting public morals or public order may sometimes be a legitimate reason for restricting freedom of expression, any such restriction may only be imposed if absolutely necessary and even then the least restrictive measure possible should be taken.
In the Attounissia case, imprisoning a journalist would be disproportionate and contravenes Tunisia's obligation to uphold freedom of expression.
“Nasreddine Ben Saida should not have been prosecuted in the first place, let alone deprived of his liberty for a whole week,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“The Tunisian authorities must now drop these criminal charges that Tunisian journalists thought they left behind with the departure of former President Ben Ali.”
“This is the first reported case of journalists being detained for published material in Tunisia following the uprising a year ago.”
Nasreddine Ben Saida was arrested on 15 February after Attounisia printed a front-page photograph of footballer Sami Khedira with his girlfriend Lena Gercke, a German model. She was pictured naked, with Sami Khedira’s hands covering her breasts.
Two other journalists from Attounissia, Hadi Hedri and Habib Guizani, were also arrested on 15 February. They were both released the next day after being questioned by a judge.
Amnesty International said the official response to the case has been unsatisfactory.
Following the journalists’ arrest, Minister of Justice Noureddine Beheiry said in a radio interview that the media should stop disturbing the judiciary and trying to affect its decisions.
In pursuing the case, the public prosecutor bypassed a new Press Law which took effect in November 2011, resorting instead to using Article 121 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals.
Lawyers said that the Penal Code article used against the journalists was overridden by the new Press Law, rendering the detention and the trial of the journalists without any legal basis.
Earlier this month, a government spokesperson revealed that discussions are planned to review the newly passed Press and Audiovisual laws, a move many Tunisian journalists see as an attempt to control and restrict the media.
The case against the Attounissia staff further adds to journalists’ and activists’ fears about the future of freedom of expression in Tunisia and the government’s lack of will to implement media laws that abide by international human rights standards.
“It is disturbing to see the Tunisian authorities fall back on the same laws used by former President Ben Ali, which were criticized by the very same people relying on them now, to repress and silence journalists,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“It sends a worrying signal when they revert to the use of these old tactics instead of showing their commitment to protecting free and open debate, a hallmark of a society that respects human rights and the rule of law.”