The battle over the media in Tunisia heats up

August has been a huge month for news about free speech in Tunisia. The constituent assembly debated new blasphemy laws and the commission on rights and liberties has included anti-blasphemy language in the constitutional article on free speech. Debates over the media have pitted pro-government forces against Tunisian newspapers, bloggers, and media watchdog groups. Here’s a rundown of the major events.

Blasphemy: Le monde reports on the new blasphemy law proposed in Tunisia’s constituent assembly. Tunis-based blogger Thierry Bresillon takes a look at the blasphemy law being proposed and why it may pass (the law calls for 2 year prison sentences and $1400 fines for offenders).

It must be recognized that the vast majority of Tunisians refuse that freedom of expression may be an excuse to attack religion. Presented in this way, a law prohibiting the infringement on the sacred would have every chance of gaining broad support. This was also the proposal by far the most applauded during the closing ceremony of the Congress of Ennahdha….To counter criticism, proponents of a condemnation (of blasphemy laws) often use the example of the criminalization in France of genocide denial, which is purportedly a  substitute for the sacred…Whatever the comparison is worth, none of these offenses is punishable by a prison sentence.

Government/Media relations: Nouvel Obs has an interview with Tunisian journalist Hanene Zbiss, who argues that Tunisia’s government is trying to muzzle the media. Nawaat writer Ali Gargouri agrees in an article in which he enumerates the various attacks on journalists over the past year.

Gargouri made even more waves when he published documents that purport to show that Ennahda’s Lotfi Zitoun, an advisor to the prime minister has undeclared ownership of a Tunisian television station. Zitoun denies the charges and has threatened to sue Gargouri. Tunisian social media activists have begun using the hashtag #ZitounGate to follow the unfolding events. Zitoun has repeatedly threatened to publish the blacklist of journalists who collaborated with the former regime.

Media watchdog organizations IFEX-TMG and Reporters without Borders both charged the government with repression of the media. Al Ahram (an Egyptian daily) reports on Reporters without Borders:

Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday denounced the Tunisian government for tightening its control of state media, highlighting the “urgent need” for independent regulation of the broadcasting sector. The media rights watchdog said it expressed “incomprehension at the persistence of inappropriate appointments to top state media posts,” during a meeting on Friday with government officials, including two political advisors to Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. It said there was an “urgent need for the creation of an independent body to regulate the broadcasting sector,” and called on the government put an “end once and for all to the lack of transparency” surrounding the latest appointments. “What was at first described by the government as an exception became the rule as the months went by,” the organisation (RSF – Reporters sans frontieres) charged.

 

From IFEX:

The IFEX-TMG strongly condemns the increasing use of violence and threats against journalists, artists and writers by police and ultra-conservative groups, and the government’s failure to put an end to the impunity of those carrying out these attacks. Furthermore, members of the media are in the midst of an ongoing battle to safeguard the freedoms gained during the democratic transition period, after the revolution.

 

Ammar 404: A group of Tunisian cyber-activists and netizens decided to lodge a complaint against the Interior Ministry to reveal the identity of web censor “Ammar404”. “Ammar404” is the nickname netizens gave to Internet surveillance and censorship during the regime of former President Zeine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Dar Essabah affair: From the Washington Post (via wire service): About 200 protesters gathered in front of the government headquarters to denounce the appointment of a former police chief to lead the state-run Dar Assabah media group. Tunisian journalists and opposition activists are accusing the government of trying to take control of the country’s media to influence upcoming elections.

The group’s editors have accused the government of trying to censure the editorial content of the newspapers (Dar Essabah in Arabic and Le Temps in French).

Ettounsiya affair: Elodie Auffray provides background on what started as criticism of a puppet show but escalated into an all out PR battle between figures in the media and the government. She writes in French daily Liberation:

It was one of the biggest hits of Ramadan, the high season for new TV productions in Tunisia. “Political logic,” as the “Guignols” (Puppets in English) is known here aired, by Attounsiya station, stopped suddenly last week. The last two planned episodes were not broadcast. The disappearance went unnoticed for almost a week, until the union of journalists stood up. “The diffusion of Les Guignols was stopped under duress,” said Union secretary general Mongi Khadhraoui on Shems FM radio, citing “indirect pressure” by the government dominated by the Islamist party Ennahda.

 

Friday night, a warrant was issued to arrest the director of the satellite channel, Sami Fehri, for his alleged involvement in cases of corruption during the time of Ben Ali. Nothing to do with Les Guignols, but in this context, opening the (corruption) case is somewhat surprising.

 

Auffray offers a translation of a rap song performed by Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, Prime Minister Jebali and a young salafist (the video can be found on Liberation’s website:

“Leave Ennahda alone, Leave Ennahda alone / Oh, opposition, take care of your own business for a second / the government of Ennahda, despite everything that it has done is good / oh my god, may Ennahda be the winner / This is the holy month of Ramadan and we have closed the cafes / (…) / You are unable to oppose us, (you) opposition relax / we’re with the United States and Qatar / If you oppose Ennahda, your life is in danger / besides, there is not alternative to Ennahda / and whoever opposes us is a Freemason, a traitor.”

 

The tone and nature of the clips did not please members of Ennahda. “They protested against them because they were unbalanced criticism,” says a member of the production. Without naming the Guignols, the Minister of Health has publicly condemned “certain programs [that] exceed all limits mocking public figures without any respect.” “We must respect the symbols of the state,” said Abdellatif Mekki.

 

Lotfi Zitoun, government spokeman and adviser to the prime minister, denied there being a political motive for the arrest of Attounsiya’s owner. TunisieNumerique reports “In a response to the accusation (of political motives) he stated that he considered mockery of the symbols of the democratically elected government to be wrong. He also stressed the need to take into account the sensitivity and the fame of these public figures who each have a family. Regarding Sami Fehiri, Zitoun accused him of being a “criminal,” accusing him of being part of the corrupt system established under the former regime. He denied outright government interference in the course of justice.”

The Tunisian workers part (former Communist party) issued a statement supporting Fehri’s arrest because of his close links to the former regime and alleged corruption.

An arrest warrant was issued for Sami Fehri on August 25. Fehri surrendered today according to reports. He has claimed that his arrest was politically motivated. The Tunisian Union for Journalists (SNJT) denounced Fehri’s arrest.

In a separate incident, an Attounsiya cameraman was assaulted on Aug 26.

Open Government: Advocates of open government today announced their decision to sue the government for information from the work of the Constituent Assembly. From Nawaat: “The non-governmental organizations Al Bawsala and the Nawaat association, as well as many citizens of the Tunisian collective OpenGov TN, have made a formal complaint to the Administrative Court on Wednesday, August 29, 2012 against the National Constituent Assembly, to require the publication of details of votes of elected officials, attendance records, as well as all the minutes, reports and work since October 23, 2011.

Al Bawsala is the organization responsible for the site Marsad.tn, which systematically publishes the work of the Constituent Assembly. See an interview with its founders here.

In other news, John Thorne has a great piece on what it’s like operating as an independent bookstore (one of my favorites) in Tunisia today in his article “Books and art pit freedom of religion against free speech in Tunisia.” Excerpts from the Christian Science Monitor:

Before last year’s revolution, police would drop by the Librairie Mille Feuilles in this upscale Tunis suburb to look for books deemed politically deviant. The bookshop has since attracted a different kind of scrutiny.

Last December a strange man entered and addressed owner Lotfi El Hafi: “You have indecent books,” he said, indicating Femmes au Bain, a book about depictions of women bathing in European art. “I’m sent to warn you.” The next day he returned with a second man and threatened trouble if the book wasn’t removed…the incident highlights Tunisia’s struggle to balance two gains of the revolution that seem complementary but often clash: freedom of speech and the free practice of religion.

The debate will ultimately determine the breadth of free expression in a country that was long among the world’s most censored. It has also cast a spotlight on the leading Ennahda party, moderate Islamists who say that Islam is compatible with an open society.

 

The Tunisian blogosphere erupted after a Tunisian journalist was arrested for public consumption of alcohol during Ramadan. Amnesty condemned the action

The latest arrests of journalists and activists in Tunisia are further evidence that human rights in the country are at risk of being restricted, Amnesty International has warned. Journalist and activist Sofiene Chourabi was arrested along with two friends on 5 August for drinking alcohol on a beach where they had been camping at Kelibia, in the country’s northeast. Charges of “disturbing public order” and “violating sacred values” have been used repeatedly in the past few months under Article 21 of the Tunisian Penal Code, which criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals.

 

Tunisian journalist Afef Abrougui interviews Tunisian cartoonist Z, who continues to see political repression in post revolutionary Tunisia. Money quote:  “I only consider libel, and racist insults as red lines. Otherwise, there is nothing that can justify any kind of censorship. Even though I’m aware that I do hurt the feelings of some, I believe that we have to elevate the supremacy of freedom above religious sacredness (even if it represents the majority) and accept the famous adage that says “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.”

Meanwhile, a Tunisian comedian who last month had shows cancelled (see my update from this week) because of Salafist protests and was condemned by the chief of police for criticizing them, announced his new show, 100% Government.

Finally, Tunisia Live writes about 10 Tunisian blogs worth reading, while deploring the state of the Tunisian blogosphere.

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11 thoughts on “The battle over the media in Tunisia heats up

  1. you just list these issues with no interpretation or even questioning the veracity in that sense your article is misleading. You make it look as if the govmnt is doing a lot of bad things against the media. But another reading is that they are arresting drunks, criminals with links to the old regime and slowly removing journalists allied to the old regime. Furthermore claims of money laundering etc are being directed to the Government and repeated even after they have been recognised as false rumours. In essence if you analysed and then told the truth you actually have to be honest and say the govmnt is pretty honest and doing pretty well in dealing with the remenants of the old corrupt regime.

    • Latifa, thanks for your comment. You’re correct that I haven’t added my own analysis here, rather what I was hoping to do in this article is provide an update of the major media debates over the last month in Tunisia. This is why I haven’t listed here things like the government arresting drunks (though, to be honest, my blog isn’t a crime blotter, so you probably won’t be seeing too much of that from me on my blog).

      I have however, included government responses to these media issues where possible in the articles I have cited. See, for example, Mekki and Zitoun’s responses to Fehri’s arrest warrant.

      Finally, in terms of providing an honest assessment of the government’s efforts of dealing with the former regime, I totally understand that you would find my analysis wanting. However, my editorial line at Kefteji is to, with a few exceptions, report on the debates that are taking place in Tunisian politics, rather than assess which side is correct or not. This can provide the basis for readers to assess for themselves.

      Thanks for reading!

      • fair enough will give you the benefit of the doubt as a new reader. I Myself voted CPR and feel the coalition is a good thing, at the same time am intent on voting for Ennahda in the forthcoming elections as they have shown, in my opinion, that they are a moderate party with an Islamic reference which is surely what most tunisians want.

      • btw my reference to drunks was to the blogger/journalist arrested drunk in a tent with a minor not all drunks in general, as in the words of the great Muslim singer songwriter Richard Thompson “God loves a drunk” too.

      • I’d tend to disagree with Latifa’s argument here – instead of the old regime accusing those fighting for democracy being Islamists in order to justify repression, now we have Islamists accusing those fighting for democracy of being linked to the old regime. Although I’m not Tunisian or in the country anymore, you might be interested to read my analysis of the situation here: http://thawraeyewitness.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/tunisia-ennahda-fails-to-deliver.html

  2. Dear Patrick. the flaw in your argument is that the process of creating an open society is on going. I won’t defend all actions of any government as ultimately politicians tend to line their own pockets and serve their own egos. However there is no question that the media, judiciary and police still have remenants of the old regime. The large demos in Tunis show a public desire for purging these reactionaries and it is this need to which I was referring. At the same time just being an atheist is not a crime and such minorities should have their rights protected like any minority. At the mment though things are very sensitive and we have random acts by provocatuers on both the loony salafi and fundamnetalist atheists trying to stir up sedition. In a normal society they should be left to rant but when it can lead to violence as in Tunisia at present the government needs to ensure public order is maintained.
    Don’t fall in to the trap of classing the RCD along with Ennahda as the obvious difference is the latter were voted in and can be voted out. At the same time don’t blame them for trying to enact policies they stand for because they were voted to do that task.

  3. … we have random acts by provocatuers on both the loony salafi and fundamnetalist atheists trying to stir up sedition … In a normal society they should be left to rant …

    There are certain higly effective means at the disposal of democratic societies to defend themselves against sectarianism and totalitarian ideologies, e.g. to mention only two of those means:

    1 – In party-list proportional representation systems, an election threshold (eg.g of 5%) is a clause that stipulates that a party must receive a minimum percentage (of 5%) of votes, either nationally or within a particular district, to obtain any seats in the parliament

    2 – (Insertion of) concepts like ” incitement to ethnic, racial or religious hatred “. within the penal code of a country

  4. dear publicola, The problem is not limiting parlimentary representation of such fringe groups to a particular threshold. It is unlikely the fanatical atheists would gain many votes anyway. It is the second point that is more salient. The penal code needs to include measures to prevent incitement through denigration of religious or racial groups. for instance In a normal setting displays of nudity in art are just that ART. In tunisia at present we have fanatical atheistically inclined individuals groping around for tacky and tasteless ways to make fun of others such as salafis. So there have been fashion exhibitions with bare breasted women with a niqaab. No actual artistic value but just designed to create sedition. As I say in normal times this is probably best overlooked. In a shaky transition from a secular dictatorship to an islamic based democracy one needs to think of the greater good (social cohesion).

    • Latifa, I appreciate your comments, however, I disagree with you fundamentally about the nature of comparing different kinds of extremism. To be a Salafist or secularist extremist, you need to want to impose your views on the rest of society.

      Salafist extremism in Tunisia has been characterized by efforts to close bars, shut down cultural events deemed offensive, and insert illiberal laws into the new constitution. Secular extremism was found in the actions of the former regime, which monitored those exercising their fundamental right to worship, or enforced extreme positions on the Islamic headscarf.

      The kind of secular extremism you are talking about, however, is not being imposed on society (or advocated by any political parties that I know). One makes the choice to visit an art show – and the reality is that very few people actually did make that choice. I remember when politicians first started using the rhetoric of secular extremism and I wrote that it was taking the country down a dangerous road of polarization.

      Where I would agree with you is that society needs to have boundaries around civil discourse. In my view, those boundaries should be quite large (for media, artists, and citizens themselves). Those boundaries should exclude incitement to violence (death threats), or any physical intimidation. It would help if the major political parties here could agree upon those principles and operate under that framework.

  5. I think Latifa is actually right that limiting parliamentary representation with threshholds isn’t going to address the cultural war going on in Tunisia in any significant way – the Salafists were shut out of the CA elections and they’ve still managed to twist politics to suit themselves (and Ennahda) by making the issue in the minds of people Islam or Secularism.

    This is a natural response of the people of the MENA region – when they’ve been oppressed by “secular” regimes for so long who justified their crimes by scapegoating Islamists, people are naturally going to think political Islam is some kind of alternative. It’s taking them time to understand that political Islam in practice represents nothing radically different from the old regimes, especially on the economic policies of neoliberalism that are really what’s at the bottom of all of this. Thus, my experience in Palestine leads me to think that Hamas would not win another election after their years in office.

    The “fanatical atheists” Latifa has so totally fallen for the scapegoating of, however, are the ones seeking to restore the political struggle to where it was in the early days of the uprisings – to for democratic society or not, for a just economy or an unjust one. “Stability” is exactly what the West used to justify propping up Ben Ali, Mubarak, etc… now it’s what’s being used to justify reining in the revolutionary youth and get them to stop talking about questions like inequality, neoliberalism, etc. Thankfully, this summer has shown us the workers & the youth refuse to be reined in.

  6. Probably a little late to continue this discussion but worth restating, in the light of recent events, a comment I made earlier. “In tunisia at present we have fanatical atheistically inclined individuals groping around for tacky and tasteless ways to make fun of others such as salafis”. I can now add, in France and in the US also. I don’t accept Patricks assertion that they are in fact “the ones seeking to restore the political struggle to where it was in the early days of the uprisings”. They are quite rightly nutters seeking a reaction. In Tunisia there is a clear difference between this type, who want to provoke and ridicule and the broader society of individuals with their own beliefs and views who quite rightly want to defend them and seek a tolerant society. That atheistic fantic faction exists it would be silly of any observer of the Tunisian scene to deny that and to deny the hatred they hold for “the other”. In that sense I regard them as the flip side of the salafist fanatics.

    My feeling is that all political elements are playing with fire here and sadly confrontation is not going to dissapear any time soon. I do think ennahda will become stronger as the Secularist camp is looking partisan yet events are forcing the Government to look more neutral and increasingly forced to stand up to extremism (on both sides by a public that love their religion yet are tolerant of divergent practices whithin it. Come the election they will look like the party of “stability” and others as divisive. That would tie in with my longer term prognosis that Ennahda will inevitably split into three (or more) currents of Islamism. A non violent orthodox (salafi), a Brotherhood trend and a liberal slightly conservative trend. This is already visible in Egypt with these three trends covering around 10 parties. .

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