ARTICLE 19 calls on the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to respect the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution and international treaties ratified by the Republic of Tunisia. We urge the authority to amend the conditions it has placed on participation in the referendum campaign, which will have serious repercussions on freedom of expression.
Furthermore, ARTICLE 19 condemns the electoral body’s threats against people calling for a boycott of the referendum.
As part of the process of rolling out a referendum on a new constitution, the ISIE issued a decision No. 14 dated 13 June 2022, setting out the conditions and procedures for participation in the referendum campaign. Its third article referred to individuals and groups intending to take part in the referendum campaign. It stated that that individuals, political parties, and public affair associations and organisations should declare their intention to participate in the referendum campaign as part of their democratic rights as citizens. To take part, individuals and groups are required to provide documents stipulated in Article 7 of the published decision, including information about any criminal record they held, annual tax declarations and 100 signatures of support.
Article 22 of the decision compels anyone, who wishes to be involved in the campaign, to determine his/her position on the draft constitution, either by adopting a position of support or of opposition. In the event that one of the participants changes his/her position, the ISIE may withdraw the right to participate in the campaign.
Threats over boycott plans
In a media statement issued on 14 June the vice president of the ISIE asserted that individuals, associations, and parties calling for a boycott of the referendum will be subject to penal prosecution.
The ISIE’s stipulations forbid associations and the general public from expressing opinions on the referendum and the draft constitution until after a declaration has been submitted to the commission. This is a grave breach of Article 31 of the Tunisian Constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee freedom of expression. In addition, the requirement that a declaration must be submitted is a violation of Article 31 of the Constitution, which prohibits the exercise of prior control over freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 reiterates the importance of freedom of expression in the political sphere, especially during electoral periods, when it is incumbent on states to create an enabling environment for all political and social groups to access the media in order to freely express and present their views to voters. The media should also respect the principles of equity and pluralism by presenting a range of perspectives so that voters have a full perception of the various arguments and ideas behind competing agendas.
Preventing people and groups who intend to boycott the referendum from expressing their opinions amidst a political climate characterised by tense disagreement between political, civil, and social movements regarding the overhaul of the constitution further weakens the legitimacy of this process, particularly because only 38 percent of people who took part in an online consultation led by the President of the Republic requested the establishment of a new constitution.
ARTICLE 19 warns of the serious effects that the ISIE’s decision may have on the right to freedom of expression and on the principles of pluralism and diversity in the electoral context, especially given the fact that, on the eve of the referendum, political disputes are rife. These tensions concern the legitimacy of the political process, which the President of the Republic, Kais Saied, announced on 13 December 2021: the decision to hold a referendum on a new constitution on 25 July 2022, followed by legislative elections on 17 December 2022.
Accordingly, ARTICLE 19 calls on the ISIE to re-articulate its decision regarding the conditions for participation in the referendum campaign. It calls on the authority to clearly distinguish between the activities undertaken by the parties intending to participate in the referendum campaign, including advertising and legally-available methods to urge people to vote in a particular manner, and individuals and associations that express their views on the referendum and on the draft constitution, and to uphold their right to freedom of expression.