Tunisian President, Kais Saied has announced measures to restrict, punish and block what his government determines, is abuse and misuse of social media.
The president cited crimes and “lawlessness,” specifically by people criticising government officials and activities, which were “harming the country’s interests” as the basis of the decision.
Simultaneously, the Tunisian Justice, Interior and Technology ministries stated in a joint press release said that those who shared content produced by others could face criminal charges “inside and outside the Tunisian soil.”
The ministries’ statement went on to say that a number of unnamed people already stand accused of seeking to “harm the state’s interests” and “slander state symbols.”
It said that “criminal charges have been raised to reveal the identity of social media users who intend to exploit these platforms to promote false news, data and rumours” and that an official blacklist of social media accounts which will be prohibited from sharing content will be declared to the public soon.
The president said over social media that his government will also take the assistance of other countries to prevent “online crimes,” adding that “death threats, indignity, spreading rumours and insults have nothing to do with freedom of thought or freedom of expression.”
The announcement has caused widespread concern among human rights activists and groups, who claim that the decision is a declaration of war on freedom of speech and expression in the country.
According to Tunisian political analyst Mohamed Dhia Hammami, “the government wants Tunisia to collapse in total silence.”
He condemned the decision, saying that the government’s new official policy is either “agree and be a hypocrite or don’t agree and leave the country.”
Amnesty International also condemned the move, warning any laws introduced to combat so-called cybercrime will also be used to target government critics and dissidents.
Referring to the existing cybercrime law that has been used to target opposition figures, critics, journalists, activists, and others, Amnesty had stated in a report in December 2022 that “the new decree-law mandates heavy prison sentences based on ambiguous terms such as ‘fake news’.”
The latest move is part of a long campaign of repression and persecution under the rule of Mr Saied, who assumed virtually all executive and legislative power in the country in July 2021 in what many described as a “presidential coup.”
In the subsequent months, he took a number of additional measures to consolidate more power and encroach on the independence of other government institutions including the judiciary and the election commission.
He has given himself the power to rule by decree, dissolved the supreme judicial council and created a new body with judges of his choice, changed the electoral rules, and most importantly, brought in a new constitution which not only extends his powers but also preserves them.
His government recently arrested dozens of opposition political figures on what critics claimed were politically motivated and frivolous charges.