Artistic freedom: Tunisia walks a narrow tightrope

9 September 2015
Ziad Abdel Tawab

At first, much of the heavy-handed censorship on artists by the Ben Ali regime appeared to have been swept away. But as artists are more frequently being arrested and charged in courts with penal codes of the pre-revolutionary days, Tunisian legislation has increasingly come under fire from defenders of freedom of expression.

By Daniel Brown, Freemuse correspondent

Ziad Abdel Tawab arrived in Tunis from his native Egypt in September 2014. The director of the newly-created Tunis branch of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, CIHRS, had been assigned to build the NGO’s capacity and to monitor human rights abuses in all the Arab world bar Egypt itself. “And we have to be careful where we tread when talking of Tunisia, too,” he explains in his modest office in a leafy suburb of the capital.

After nine months, the stress appears to have diminished him physically, chronic backaches have made him bedridden for three days before we meet. Tawab is a portly chain-smoker dressed like an American graduate with baggy Levis, sneakers and an ungainly mix of short-sleeved sweater and striped shirt. His informal demeanour does not mask his anxiety.

“Tunisia is walking on a very narrow tightrope just now,” he explains to me in a June 2015 interview. “Conflicts are raging all around here, in Egypt and especially Libya, and, for the authorities, there’s the hostility from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to juggle with. This leads to constant pressure on this government as it tries to build some form of post-revolutionary stability.”

This is the country’s seventh government since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Still, Tawab insists it is the least difficult one to work with in the Arab world. “It’s the only nation where we can work on human rights with the authorities, trying to push for reform from the inside rather than as some pariah NGO pressure group gesticulating from the outside.”

What Tawab’s organisation both in Tunis and Cairo has also come to realise is the importance of pushing their human rights agenda through non-traditional means. And for his 11-person office, the arts and cultural movements throughout the Arab world are at the vanguard of such change. He hopes to collaborate with them in the facing of mounting challenges of censorship and artistic repression.

“I’ve had many exchanges with authorities in the region and, in this regard, the current Tunisian leadership is the most mature. They are aware of how influential creative social media, music, theatre and street art were in spreading the revolution from Sidi Bouzid and Maknassy eastwards towards the major cities. And how, potentially, it remains a powerful federating tool for the future.”

Much of the heavy-handed censorship on artists by the Ben Ali regime appeared to have been swept away in the euphoric months that followed 15 January 2011. Exhibitions proliferated, burnt-out cars were transformed into street sculptures, police stations became art galleries, the gutted homes owned by the reviled Trabelsi family were redecorated in imaginative and humorous ways. (, Public spaces became playgrounds for self-taught street artists like eL Seed, Oussama Bouajila, Chahine Berriche and the collective Ahl El Kahf who painted impressive murals inspired by the events.

Bouagila and Berriche soon discovered that not all had been swept away after the revolution, however. The two taggers from the southeast city of Gabès were arrested and charged for the slogans they painted defending the poor and marginalised. The jury used legislation of the pre-revolutionary days, such as Articles 303 of the penal code and, most notoriously Article 121 (3), legislation used for years by Ben Ali to convict political opponents. The judge also referred to Decree-Law No. 115 of 2011 dealing with the “offense of false news which harms public order”, a law that has increasingly come under fire from defenders of freedom of expression.

Hashtag can lead you to prison
However, the most widely-used legislation is N°92-52, established 23 years ago. Once again, lawyers are claiming it is a legal arsenal used to lock up dissident artists on bogus drugs charges. Observers insist certain corruptive habits continue to thrive under the law since richer youth caught in possession of any drug are released before it comes to court – as long as the police come to an understanding with the more well-off parents.

The director of the NGO Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, Amna Guellali, claims the law is “une machine à broyer la jeunesse – a machine to grind down Tunisia’s youth – and is used repeatedly against artists from the country’s poorer popular quarters.”

The tests for traces of cannabis are often done by the policemen themselves and not doctors. “It leads to all kinds of abuses in procedure,” claims the Human Rights Watch directress.

Film director Souhail Bayoudh who is involved in cultural projects in the rundown areas of Greater Tunis does not mince his words: “Using Law 52 drags you into a grey zone where your rights disappear,” he told reporter Perrine Massy of Webdo (see her excellent articles on the subject at, “the police torture and beat kids up in the name of the law.”

Bayoudh also presides Forza Tounes who support social initiatives by the capital’s youth. In March 2015 the association published a study claiming three million Tunisians are marijuana smokers. One-third are women.

The abuses of Law 52 have become so widespread president Béji Caïd Essebsi intervened in December 2014, saying its misuse was “sacrificing the future”. On 6 July 2015, Parliament published a draft law aimed at exonerating marijuana consumers. But critics have been quick to denounce article 36 which states that anyone publicly encouraging the smoking of joints will be prosecuted for half the sentence reserved for consumers.

Ghrazi Mrabet

High-profile lawyer Ghazi Mrabet claimed that, under the reform, journalists could be prosecuted by simply reporting on works of art which touch on cannabis consumption. Human Rights Watch’s Amna Guellali said that even those calling on the legalisation of soft drugs could now face a six month gaol sentence and a 500 dinar fine (230€). “A simple hashtag like #LegaliseIt can lead you to prison,” wrote blog creator Olfa Riahi on her Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the major change trumpeted by justice minister Mohammed Saleh Ben Issa is that judges can finally consider mitigating circumstances before sentencing. It is only this proviso which will distinguish consumers of a simple joint from drug traffickers.

» Read more: The alternative voices: Artists in the Arab world

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