Tunisia has made it a crime to incite foreigners not to invest in the country, give it loans or sign trade deals with it, in new legislation that human rights campaigners say could be used to stifle criticism.
The legislation was passed at a time when an application by Tunisia for “advanced status” with the European Union, giving it preferential trade terms, could be complicated by opposition allegations about the government’s human rights record.
Justice and Human Rights Minister Lazhar Bououni said the amendments to the penal code, approved by parliament earlier this week, were in line with legislation in other countries.
“The country’s vital interests are anything that has to do with its economic security,” the official news agency TAP quoted the minister as saying in parliament. He denied that the legislation limited freedom of expression.
Examples of crimes under the new law included “inciting foreign parties not to give a loan to Tunisia, or to not invest in the country, as well as incitement to boycott tourism and obstructing Tunisia’s efforts to obtain advanced partner status with the EU”, the agency quoted Bououni as saying.
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali says he is committed to democracy and free speech. His supporters say he enjoys widespread popularity for making the country one of the wealthiest and most stable in the region.
Some opposition parties and international human rights organisations say the Tunisian authorities suppress dissent and harass their opponents, which he government denies.
Human Rights group Amnesty International said the law was aimed against activists who lobby foreign institutions to put pressure on the government over its rights record.
“Tunisian authorities have elected to further criminalise human rights advocacy and to undermine the courageous work done by human rights defenders and others,” the organisation said in a statement.
Rights campaigner Mohamed Abbou echoed that view. “This law is very dangerous to the freedoms in the country,” he told Reuters. “This law is not clear and could criminalise people giving declarations to foreign media.”
If the EU grants Tunisia “advanced status” it would mean lower trade barriers, as well as more access to aid and cooperation in areas ranging from science and technology to energy and education.
Pic: President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia