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Tunisia constitution needs stronger free press guarantees

Human rights groups and legislators are praising the third and final draft of Tunisia's new constitution as one of the most liberal charters in the Arab world--and for being arrived at by a remarkably consensual process among political parties, especially if compared with neighboring Egypt and Libya.

As Tunisians celebrate the third anniversary of the revolution that removed former dictator Ben Ali from power, the National Constituent Assembly has been debating and voting on the draft, article by article, according to news reports and human rights organizations. The assembly has made great strides in areas such as the role of religion in public life, women's rights, and freedom of religion--issues on which the rest of the region finds difficulty compromising.

Articles 30 and 31 ensure freedom of opinion and expression and access to information according to news reports. Article 30 says: "Freedom of speech, thought and expression and media and publishing are guaranteed and there is no prior censorship on these freedoms." This article was approved by 173 of the 217 members, with nine abstentions, and without any objection. Article 31 states, "The State shall guarantee the right to access the media and information." It was approved by 171 members, with nine abstentions and one objection.

However, two provisions fall short of international standards to which the Tunisian Constituent Assembly has committed under the EU-Tunisia action plan, which stresses respect for freedom of expression and media pluralism in exchange for financial cooperation.

Of concern is Article 124, which provides for setting up of a regulatory body that would "regulate and develop the information sector and guarantee freedom of the press and expression and the right of access to information." This mandate, combining the regulation of access to information as well as the media, is too broad.

The second concern is the independence and impartiality of that regulatory body, as its members would be elected by representatives of political parties in the future House of Representatives, according to article 122 of the draft constitution.

While this is a break from the past, when the government had complete control the appointment of media regulators, CPJ believes that this mechanism would open the way for politicization of the regulator, allowing any political party in the majority to stifle the press, just as the Ministry of Information did during Ben Ali's era.

Members of the National Constituent Assembly should ensure that the government and political parties are excluded; the formation of such a regulatory body should be done independently by Tunisian journalists, with the help of other civil society institutions.

The National Constituent Assembly has already approved Articles 122 and 124, along with dozens of others. The approval of two-thirds majority is needed to pass each article. The assembly began voting January 3, in a bid to finalize the vote January 14, the anniversary of Ben Ali's ouster, according to news reports. But disagreements on executive and judicial powers disrupted that plan. Voting is expected to resume once a dispute between members on the formation of a new cabinet is resolved, according to news sources.

As their discussions on human rights draw to a close, the Assembly members still have time to review the draft provisions and bring the future Tunisian Constitution in compliance with international standards. They can promote the media freedom without which vibrant democracy and economic development cannot exist.

Once all the articles are approved, the assembly has two attempts to approve the entire document by a two-thirds majority--or it will be put forward for a referendum, according to the Assembly's bylaws. The Assembly started the drafting process on November 23, 2011.

[Reporting from Cairo]

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