Tunisian rapper Klay BBJ has once again caught the attention of authorities and police, facing trial at an as yet unspecified date for defamation in accordance with the country’s law on freedom of press, printing and publishing. The trial comes after security forces left in the middle of one his concerts in the coastal city of Mahdia on 16 July 2017 claiming his lyrics were defamatory and took the matter to court.
Freemuse is deeply concerned over the charges and the continued harassment the rapper has received over the last several years for exerting his right to freedom of artistic expression and calls on Tunisian authorities to drop the charges.
“The sign of a maturing democracy is one that allows for a free and safe place for expression. Tunisian authorities, in their nascent, post-revolution democracy have yet to live up to their ideals if they do not allow Klay BBJ to express his art, even if his messages are critical of them,” Freemuse Executive Director Dr Srirak Plipat said. “Authorities can set an example by dropping the charges against the rapper, ensuring that security forces will do their mandated job to protect all citizens, and halting their harassment of artists like Klay BBJ.”
Following the incident at the Mahdia concert, several summer festivals cancelled the rapper’s concerts as security forces syndicates announced that their forces would not insure safety at the events.
Meanwhile, Klay BBJ released a new song in response to his current treatment, defying the security forces and denouncing the cancellation of his concerts and violation of his freedom of expression.
Ghazi Mrabet, Klay BBJ’s lawyer told Freemuse that the rapper was summoned to appear before the Gorjani unit of the criminal police where he confronted the plaintiffs. After that, he was ordered to appear before the deputy prosecutor at the Court of First Instance in Mahdia.
On 4 August 2017, the court referred him to the Correctional Court. The rapper is accused of defamation and will be prosecuted in accordance with Legislative Decree No.2011-115 on Freedom of the Press, Printing, and Publishing. Mrabet informed Freemuse that the trial is fixed for some time in the new legal year which began this September.
Civil society organizations in the country have denounced the trial, considering it a violation of freedom of expression. Furthermore, in an act of support for Klay BBJ, Tunisian rapper Balti cancelled the three concerts he was supposed to perform with Klay BBJ during the summer festival season.
In September 2016, Freemuse submitted its stakeholder submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review recommending that Tunisia should abolish and replace criminal defamation laws with appropriate civil defamation laws, and replace unclear and vague provisions in the penal code that are used arbitrarily and disproportionately to imprison artists.
Klay BBJ’s history with authorities
Tunisian rapper Klay BBJ has always fuelled controversy. Though thousands of young people follow his music and a majority of his videos have broken major records on YouTube in the country; his music and lyrics spark the wrath of Tunisian security forces. The repeated violent treatment the rapper has received at the hands of police has fomented his criticism of the police operating beyond their legal limits and mandates, thus keeping him in their sights.
His trouble with them began in 2013 when he and fellow Tunisian rapper Weld El 15 were arrested and beaten by police in the middle of their concert on the stage of the Hammamet International Festival.
The rappers were accused of defamation, undermining public morals and insulting police officers. The two rappers were sentenced to 21 months in jail in absentia, without being summoned to court or even informed of the trial. While Klay BBJ decided to contest the earlier ruling at the time; Weld El 15 went on the run.
Klay BBJ exercised his right to have a new trial with the presence of his lawyers in the courtroom. He was sentenced to six months in jail before being released three weeks later after an appeal. From that time on, trouble with police and security forces did not stop.
In 2015, Klay BBJ was arrested again on suspicion of possession and use of cannabis and was detained for two days after the prosecutor ordered his release upon review of his case; the rapper was acquitted.
In Tunisia, Penal Code, Law 52, concerning drugs, has often been used by police and other law enforcement officials to quell artistic expressions critical of the police and authorities.
Freemuse has recommended in its stakeholder submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review that drug laws in the country should not be used to target artists and that law enforcement officials carrying out such laws should receive human rights training to ensure they are not used in that manner.