Despite pressure from Islamists to write it into the constitution, there is currently no “blasphemy” law as such, however other restrictions on free expression have been used recently—since the Arab Spring—to restrict and punish those who criticise elements of religion.
After the Arab Spring revolution, Tunisia undertook to create a new constitution. Continuing disagreement between Islamists and secularists caused delays, but it was agreed in January 2014. The new constitution begins with “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate” and ends with “And God is the guarantor of success.” The constitution is considered an expression of “commitment to the teachings of Islam”, recognizing an “Arabo-Islamic identity”, “desirous of consolidating our cultural and civilizational affiliation to the Arab and Muslim nation”.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and free practice of religion when it “does not disturb public order.” It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytize Muslims, as the government views such efforts as “disturbing the public order.” Citizens have the right to sue the government for violations of religious freedom.
The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or public morals.” Another provision of the penal code criminalizes undermining public morals by “intentionally disturbing other persons in a way that offends the sense of public decency.”
The telecommunications code criminalizes “harming others or disrupting their lives through public communication networks.” Speech that is deemed offensive to traditional religious values, including speech deemed blasphemous, is prosecuted under these provisions.
In August 2012, the ruling party, the Islamist party Ennahdha, filed an anti-blasphemy bill which would criminalise “curses, insults mockery, and desecration” of numerous religious concepts, including Allah, the Prophets, the three Abrahamic books, the Sunnah (the practices of the Prophet Muhammad), churches, synagogues and the Kaaba (the most sacred building in Islam). The bill also banned pictorial representation of God and Prophet Muhammad. However, this blasphemy bill did not have enough support to become law.
Also in 2012, Islamists inserted a clause against blasphemy in the draft constitution, which read: “The state guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice and criminalises all attacks on that which is sacred.” However, after protests against this blasphemy law, the clause was later dropped.
The right to freedom of expression, including media freedom, was declared a foundational principle for the country at the dawn of the Arab Spring. In practice, this freedom remains contested, with more conservative and religious groups opposing expressions that criticize Islam or traditional social conventions. It remains to be seen whether the new constitution will provide the legal and institutional framework to better protect freedom of expression.
On 28 March, 2012, two atheist friends, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji were sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, and to a large fine, for posting images on Facebook deemed blasphemous. Mejri and Beji were put on trial following a complaint lodged by a group of residents in Mahdia. While Jabeur Mejri is in prison, his friend Ghazi Beji sought refuge in Europe. Mejri and Beji were convicted under Article 121 (3) of the Tunisian Penal Code, which states that:“The distribution, putting up for sale, public display, or possession, with the intent to distribute, sell, display for the purpose of propaganda, tracts, bulletins, and fliers, whether of foreign origin or not, that are liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals is prohibited.”
On May 3, 2012, Nabil Karoui was convicted for disrupting public order and violating moral values by airing Persepolis an animated film that some religious leaders say insults Islam. Karoui, the head of Nessma TV a private television station, was ordered to pay a 2,400 dinar (US$1,500) fine.
In 2012, when Sofiene Chourabi, a democracy activist and journalist, called for a protest against the explicit blasphemy law proposed by Ennahdha, he was arrested the next day for “drinking alcohol during Ramadan”, which is not a crime under Tunisian law.