The two-year prison sentence for a Tunisian rapper on June 13, 2013, for “insulting the police” in a song violates freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said today. The criminal court sentence is another manifestation of the continuing intolerance for those who criticize government institutions in Tunisia.The First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Ben Arous, in the southern suburbs of Tunis, sentenced Alaa Eddine Yaakoubi, better known as Oueld El 15 (the 15-year-old boy), to two years in prison for “insulting the police” and defamation of public officials under articles 125, 128, and 226 of the penal code.
The charges stem from a video clip song, “Cops Are Dogs,” which contains a montage of scenes showing the police hitting people. This is the most recent in a string of freedom of speech prosecutions and trials of journalists, bloggers, and artists on charges of defamation or harming the public order.
“It is shocking to see that Tunisia continues to prosecute and jail artists, journalists, and bloggers for peaceful but critical words, lyrics, or images”, said Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “It is time to scrap criminal laws that try to stop criticism of the police and other state institutions.”
Article 125 of the penal code punishes by up to one year in prison anyone who insults a public servant in the course of the performance of the person’s duties. Article 128 provides for up to two years in prison for defamation of public officials, and article 226 relates to hampering public morality or decency. Oueld El 15 was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on March 21. He had been in hiding but later surrendered and asked to have the case reopened.
The case stems from investigations initiated at the police station in Hammam Lif, a city in the southern suburbs of Tunis. Ouled El 15’s lawyer, Ghazi Mrabet, told Human Rights Watch that on March 10, the head of the police station obtained a written order from the public prosecutor to initiate investigations concerning the video clip.
The rapper’s lawyers argued that the articles cited from the penal code were not applicable because the song relates to the institution of the police, and not to a particular person. They also said that the song is an artistic creation and should be protected by freedom of speech.During the sentencing session on June 13, 2013, police used force to dislodge journalists and the rapper’s supporters from the courtroom, and chased them outside of the tribunal, beating many of them.
Assma Moussa, a member of the rapper’s support committee, told Human Rights Watch:
We were around 40 at the courthouse to support Oueld El 15. In the beginning the police didn’t let us in, then two of us were allowed inside the courtroom together with journalists. When the verdict was pronounced, around 2:30 p.m., there was turmoil in the outside hall among supporters, and some of them started shouting “policemen you dogs.” Around 25 policemen in plain clothes started then pushing us, and used pepper gas to disperse and chase us out of the courthouse.
The police also beat Lina Ben Mhenni, a blogger who supports Oueld El 15, as she walked away from the courthouse. She said that right after the verdict, the police pushed people attending the trial out of the courthouse, and then ran after them. She said two policemen came up to her and started hitting her on the face, first using their vests then their bare hands, causing her to fall. A high-ranking officer came and stopped them, she said.
Julie Schneider, a French journalist who attended the sentencing, told Human Rights Watch that the police pushed her: “At the pronouncement of the sentence, there was an outcry in the courtroom. Oueld El 15’s family was in shock and crying, and one journalist, Hind Meddeb, started shouting and saying “cops you dogs.” Policemen became aggressive and brutal, and pushed everyone outside of the courtroom. They pushed me so hard that I have now various bruises on my body.”
Emine Mtiraoui, a journalist from Nawaat, was filming the scenes outside the courthouse when policemen assaulted him, he said. In a video he released, he is heard distinctly telling them, “I’m a journalist,” but they hit him on the head with sticks and attempted to seize and smash his camera.
Since early 2012, there have been numerous cases against journalists, bloggers, artists, and intellectuals for peaceful expression. In September, for example, a public prosecutor brought charges against two sculptors for artworks deemed harmful to public order and good morals. On March 28, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Mahdia sentenced two bloggers to prison terms of seven-and-a-half years, confirmed on appeal, for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam. On May 3, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Tunis fined Nabil Karoui, the owner of the television station Nessma TV, 2,300 dinars (US$1,490) for broadcasting the animated film “Persepolis,” denounced as blasphemous by some Islamists.
In April 2013, a military tribunal sentenced Ayoub Massoudi, former adviser to interim president Moncef Marzouki, to a suspended prison term of four months for impugning the reputation of the army under article 91 of the Code of Military Justice, and for defaming a civil servant. He had accused the army chief of staff and the defense minister of dereliction of duty for failing to inform him in a timely manner of the plan to extradite the former Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi Mahmoudi, to Libya.
On May 29, 2013, the military court of Sfax, in southeastern Tunisia, put Hakim Ghanmi on trial on charges of “undermining the reputation of the army,” “defamation of a public official,” and “disturbing others through public communication networks” over a letter to the defense minister he published on his blog, Warakat Tounsia, in April. In the letter, he complained about the actions of the director of the military hospital in Gabes.
International standards prohibit the application of the notion of defamation to state bodies and institutions. They should not be able to file defamation suits, or have such suits filed on their behalf. In his April 20, 2010 report, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, stated: “Criminal defamation laws may not be used to protect abstract or subjective notions or concepts, such as the State, national symbols, national identity, cultures, schools of thought, religions, ideologies or political doctrines.”
This is consistent with the view, sustained by the special rapporteur, that international human rights law protects individuals and groups of people, not abstract notions or institutions, that are subject to scrutiny, comment, or criticism.
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression, and Access to Information, a set of principles that many experts agree upon and is widely used, states in principle 7(b):
No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies or public officials, or a foreign nation state or its symbols, government, agency or public official unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely to incite imminent violence.
“As the National Constituent Assembly is putting the final touches to the new constitution, its members should take a lesson from this judgment and offer the strongest protection for freedom of speech,” Goldstein said.