A draft bill to criminalize offenses against ‘sacred values’ was submitted to parliament this week by Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda.
Human rights defenders warn if passed it would threaten freedom of expression and may worsen an already difficult situation for Tunisia’s gay community.
If passed, the new law would effectively punish remarks and words broadly deemed as insult or mocking the ‘sanctity of religion’ by large fines and imprisonment.
Ennahda enjoys parliamentary majority and holds most key positions in the government, including the post of prime minister and justice minister, making it likely the bill will be passed.
The bill lists subjects it deems sacred in the three Abrahamic religions, including God and the Prophet Mohammed, the earlier prophets, the holy books, mosques, churches and synagogues.
Offences to religious feelings include ‘insults, profanity, derision and representation of Allah and Mohammed’.
The bill orders a prison sentence of up to two years or a fine of 2000 dinars in fines (US$ 1,236, â‚¬1,006) to anyone convicted of violating sacred values and up to four years for repeat offences.
It follows an art exhibition that some deemed offensive to Islam sparked riots in Tunis last month.
Meanwhile human rights defenders and LGBT activists criticized the draft bill.
‘If passed, this draft law would introduce a new form of censorship in a country that suffered from so much censorship under the ousted president,’ said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Goldstein also added international human rights law generally prohibits criminalizing the defamation of religion.
Experts are also concerned about the effect of such laws on women and Tunisia’s LGBT community.
While homosexuality is illegal and punishable by prison sentences, the situation may even get worse as any discussion of the topic could be deemed offensive to the ‘sanctity of religion’ if the bill becomes law.
In Saudi Arabia a law against the defamation of religion was used in 2004 to jail a teacher for three years along with 300 lashes and was banned from teaching for life, when he was found guilty of ‘endorsing un-Islamic’ sexual (homosexuality), social and religious practices.
Tunisia editor of Gay Middle East and blogger Tarek (name changed to protect his identity), told Gay Star News: ‘Western governments and media supported Ennahda, for economical and geopolitical reasons should now be ashamed.
‘This is just one more step that may further erode secular civil society in Tunisia and may further worsen freedom of expression for women and LGBT Tunisians. Gays are losing hope and trying to leave the country.
‘I am concerned that the few avenues we have left for expression, like the internet, could be severely affected.’
Gayday magazine, Tunisia’s LGBT internet publication was already attacked by the Tunisian human rights minister as being offensive and pledged that freedom of expression should be limited when it comes to LGBT issues.
Legal experts are now worried that if the bill becomes law it may be used against its editor and others who express their views on LGBT rights.
Speaking with Gay Star News, Fadi (name changed to protect his identity) editor of Gayday Magazine said: ‘I am watching the developments of this bill with great concern for two main reasons.
‘One, I think it is not okay to offend the sacred values of any religion or group in any way. I know this puts a limit on freedom of expression but I do believe it must also be based on the respect of the other.
‘There still has to be a room for discussion, criticism of religious authorities and habits etc. therefore I am concerned of how much room would the bill allow for these issues if passed without it being too open for interpretations jeopardizing real freedom of expression within reason.
‘Two, I am also concerned if the bill is passed, it would affect Tunisian people, particularly secular and LGBT, giving that their lifestyles might be considered sinful and offensive to the “sanctity of religion” and thus makes them subject to penalties.
‘I think that is really alarming as the state has no right to interfere in how people live and as such is a major infringement to human rights.
‘At the end I think the question is how to maintain the fine line between respecting the “sanctity of religion” and maintaining the freedom of expression and human rights, of which LGBT rights are inseparable.’