Country Governance

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POGAR > Countries > Country Theme: Civil Society: Tunisia
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Laws of Associations

Since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed power in 1987 the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has more than tripled, from 1976 to 7321 at the turn of the century. They cover a broad range of activities, from sport and scientific pursuits to welfare, women’s activities and – by far the largest category – artistic and cultural activities. They are spread across the country so that the five most southern governorates of Gabes, Kebili, Medenine, Tataouine, and Tozeur hosted 729, while the heavily populated capital of Tunis hosted 1391. NGOs are prohibited by law from engaging in political activity, and they must be registered with the Ministry of Interior. The ministry may exercise discretion because the founding members of an association are required to submit the organization’s charter and by-laws to the ministry in order to receive a receipt. The reception of the receipt bestows legality on the organization. Public meetings of NGOs require prior approval from the ministry.

Reforms during President Ben Ali’s presidency (1988- ) include regulations on pre-trial and preventive custody, the abolition of the State Security Court, a general amnesty, and the establishment of a Constitutional Council to interpret the constitutionality of laws with binding rulings. Legal reforms broadened the state’s definition of torture and reduced the length of detention without a lawyer from ten to three days.

Changes were also introduced in the areas of children’s rights, the Electoral Law, the Press Law, and gender equality. The government enacted legislation in 1998 to improve women’s rights in matters of divorce and property ownership. Women are represented in academics, in the professions, in the national legislature, and in the cabinet. President Ben Ali’s reforms also attempted to restore a national consensus. The signing of the National Pact in 1989 drew together Tunisia's main political parties, the representatives of the business community, trade unions, the human rights community, the farmers' association, the national women's organization, the lawyers' guild, and an unofficial representative of the Islamist opposition Annahdha Party. These groups co-wrote a document that established the rules of political engagement as well as the basic economic and foreign policy orientations of the country. Nonetheless, Annahdha remains banned from politics and its leaders live in exile.

In a speech delivered on November 7, 2000, President Ben Ali announced new political and economic reforms. He stated that penitentiary institutions and their management would be transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice. Subsequently he announced that the state would make compensation payments to those held in police custody without reasonable grounds and to anyone imprisoned but later exonerated by the courts.

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Political Parties

In 1981, a multiparty system was instituted in Tunisia. According to the Political Parties Law of 1988, no political party based on religion or region is permitted. Electoral reforms also made it possible for the opposition parties to enter parliament for the first time in 1994, and then to be guaranteed 20 percent of the seats during the 1999 elections despite receiving much lower percentages of the popular vote. The same percentage of seats was set aside as a minimum for the opposition in municipal councils at the 2000 local elections.

Other reforms included an increase in public funding to political parties by 50 percent and measures for the better treatment of inmates and the legal defense of needy groups, particularly children. The president also expressed his commitment to the privatization of public sector enterprises and to the expansion of the freedom of the press. He called on journalists not to exercise self-censorship and announced that penal charges on the press for vague formulations like “defaming public order” would be abolished. President Bin Ali proclaimed on November 7, 2007 new measures for expanding pluralism in Tunisia that include doubling the amount of funds granted to political parties represented in the parliament and doubling the sum allocated to their newspapers. He promised to facilitate political parties’ activities in public spheres. The measures also include lowering the ceiling received by the political party that comes on top in parliamentary and local elections from 80% to 75% of seats. This measure means that the ruling party would be satisfied with 75% of seats in parliament and in municipal councils, leaving 25% for all other parties. Currently, the 6 parties represented in parliament receive 90,000 Dinars (US$ 70,000) for every seat, in addition to 45,000 Dinars ($35,000) for every newspaper that is an official organ of a political party.

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Associations and Unions

The Tunisian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the General Union of Students (UGET), the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the National Union of Agriculturists (UNA), the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Artisans (UTICA) constitute the significant umbrella organizations. The Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTHD) and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) are other, relatively more autonomous civil society organizations. The Higher Committee for Human Rights and Basic Freedoms is a governmental body that monitors human rights and other human rights groups.

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Media and Government Regulations

The Tunisia press is regulated under the Press Code of 1975. There are no legal restrictions on topics that the media may address, and on the surface there appears to be a diversity of news sources. The majority of information, however, actually originates from the Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), a state-owned enterprise that allegedly censors stories critical of the government. President Ben Ali announced a set of new measures in the field of media on May, 2005. The most significant measure was the abolition of the "Legal Deposit" procedure of Article 13 obliging editors of newspapers to deliver to the proper authorities a copy of every publication in return for a "deposit receipt" that allows its distribution. Violators of this regulation had faced punishment that ranges from paying fines to imprisonment. Also, because of broadly interpreted legal provisions against insulting the president or disturbing the public order, most journalists and writers practice considerable self-censorship. Foreign publications must be approved by the Ministry of the Interior before distribution. President Ben Ali has encouraged the media to take more risks in publishing critical stories, but reforms to the Press Law that would provide a truly free and independent press have yet to materialize. International human rights organizations have strongly criticized the restrictive environment in which the Tunisian press operates, and some question the sincerity of reforms in light of continued legal action taken against journalists who write stories about the government that are less than favorable.

After hesitating until 1997, the government facilitated the use of the Internet by promoting PlaNet Tunisie, a private service provider, and by setting up a country-wide network of Internet public access points, lowering subscription rates and telephone connection fees, abolishing customs duties on computers, encouraging credit to middle-income families to purchase personal computers, and connecting educational and medical institutions to the web.

The Tunisian Radio and Television Establishment (ERTT) is owned by the government. A private religious Tunisian radio station was launched at the beginning of Ramadan (September 23, 2007). The station, Al-Zaytouna, was licensed as part of the government’s plan to disseminate tolerant Islamic thought and block extremist thought. Al-Zaytouna broadcasts the Holy Quran, Prophet Mohammad’s wisdom, stories of the prophets and religious callings. It also teaches the rule of reciting the Quran. Friday prayer and ceremony is also broadcast. This is the third private radio station licensed in Tunisia after “Mozaic” and “Jawhara” stations that broadcast entertainment programs. Tunisia has licensed one private satellite TV station “Hannibal”. In all, Tunisia currently has 12 radio Station (public and private), 5 of which are local. The only dissonant voice is Tun e Zine, an online electronic newspaper with links to other opposition websites hosted abroad.

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