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.

Ennahda statement on La Marsa artwork calls for criminal prosecution of artists

This afternoon Ennahda’s parliamentary group in the constituent assembly released a statement concerning the events of the last 48 hours, which began with a protest and the eventual destruction of numerous works of art deemed offensive to Islam. See my reports here and here. The statement, released by the TAP press agency (government’s official agency) states the following, emphasis mine:

“The Ennahdha Movement (parliamentary) group in the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) said Tuesday that it will propose a law criminalizing the violation of the sacred and will work to include in the Constitution a principle against interference with the sacred.

“Religious symbols are above any mockery, irony or violation,” the group said in a statement Ennahdha, whereas freedom of expression and creation, “although recognized by the Movement”, are not “absolute “and” those who perform them should respect the beliefs and customs of the people.”

Acts of destruction, vandalism and arson are, according to the press release, either “a false answer to secular extremism” or “part of a destructive process targeting the state and its legitimacy through attacks on its courts public administration.”

The Ennahdha group called on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”.

It also called on Tunisians to not respond to calls for arson and destruction and to express their opinions within the law.”

Readers will note that Tunisia actually already has laws of this nature in its penal code (115), which has been condemned by groups including Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders. This has allowed recent prosecutions of those who have posted offensive pictures on Facebook and the translators of films featuring images that have been deemed offensive.

The statement was elaborated upon on the party’s Facebook page.

A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  – the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

Standing up for a Salafist – Defending offensive speech in Tunisia

In flagrante delicto – courtesy of Leaders

Today a Tunisian court condemned Yacine El Bdioui to six month suspended sentence for defaming the Tunisian flag. Unless he is caught again, he will serve no jail time. The case was brought against El Bdioui, a Salafi activist, after he was caught on video in February at a protest at Manouba University taking down the Tunisian national flag and replacing it with a black “salafi” flag – embedded with the Muslim profession of faith.

The act of removing the flag was offensive to almost all who saw it – it represented for many a group of extremists trying to impose their will, and their morals, on the country. When a young women, Khaoula Rachidi, stood up to the Mr. El Bdioui, and replaced the “salafi” flag with the Tunisian flag she became a national symbol.

President Moncef Marzouki openly praised the young woman and invited her to the presidential palace in Carthage. Opposition parties in the Constituent Assembly used the event for political gain as well – accusing the government of inaction. They attacked the government for laxity after the accused was left to his own devices for several weeks before he turned himself in – even though his identity was widely known.

The verdict, like so many recent verdicts in the Tunisian justice system, and despite its softness, leaves a bitter taste. Firstly it shows the inadequacy of Tunisia’s criminal code. In spite of the fact that the crime was offensive, El Bdioui’s act was one of a vandal. His extremism was not directed at any person. In this way, it once again shows the timidity of the Tunisian justice system to stand up for basic civil rights. Similar to the sentences handed down last week against the translators, producers, and distributors of Persepolis on Tunisian television, the judges avoided the kind of sentences that would cause utter outrage – but do nothing to show that certain kinds of speech are and will be protected.

Unlike the cases against Nessma TV or Attounsiya, there are no heroes here. El Bdioui was not charged with a spurious claim of being offensive or blasphemous, he was caught in flagrante delicto. But just like the two businessmen, he was caught in the web of Tunisia’s criminal code which gives too much power to the government to define what is offensive, and too little power to individuals who want to express their views.

The verdict will no doubt draw comparisons as well to the recent harsh sentences given to two Tunisian atheists for posting offensive comments and photos on their Facebook pages (see my article on the Mahdia Affair). Critics of today’s sentence will argue that the disparity in sentences is cause for alarm (the two atheists were given 7 years of hard time, rather than a 6 month suspended sentence). It is difficult to argue that the disparity poses deeply troubling questions. But defenders of civil liberties should remain resolute – both sentences go against the principles of freedom of expression and show the arbitrariness of regulating speech.

I was offended by Mr. El Bdioui’s act, just as I was offended when another group of extremists burned the American flag in front of the embassy one week earlier (no charges were brought).

However, I do defend the right of people to protest peacefully and to express their views publicly. A defender of civil liberties cannot act one way toward people he supports and another for people he disapproves of.

Guilty! Tunisian courts convict Persepolis translator

File:Persepolis film.jpg

Today Nessma TV, a Tunisian television station, was found guilty of blasphemy and disturbing the public order for last October’s airing of the French-Iranian film Persepolis. Prosecutors brought lawsuits against the TV owner and other involved in the film’s production and translation into Tunisian dialect.* While both convictions are setbacks for free speech in Tunisia, it is the conviction of the film’s translator and producers that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect.

(For more background on the case, see Masood Hayoun’s article in the Atlantic this week)

The case has played out for over 8 months, beginning with the film’s airing just weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on October 23. Outraged by the film’s brief scene with God, protests ensued immediately after the airing – followed by a lawsuit brought by conservative lawyers. Nessma TV employees were threatened and Karoui’s house was ransacked. The new government, led by Islamist party Ennahdha, condemned the violence against Karoui – as well as the “provocation” caused by the film.

The convictions show failures in Tunisia’s political system on three levels.

Firstly, the fact that the case was a criminal case is a miscarriage. Human rights groups  have pointed out that the prosecutions have been based on Ben Ali era criminal codes which essentially allow the government to prosecute anyone who might be deemed to have done something offensive. These laws were used liberally by the former dictatorship and it is disturbing to see them still being used to silence speech. (see here and here for more background on the criminal aspects of the case)

Secondly, the conviction of the film’s translator is particularly troubling. Supporters of the convictions often use the argument that governments have the right to protect public morality over the airwaves. This is true and is an often used restriction on free speech throughout the world – but that should extend only to the television station itself. The fact that the film’s translator was convicted shows that the prosecution not only wants to restrict diffusion of potentially controversial speech, but to limit its very creation.*

Finally, there is the failure of the government to defend free speech. Each time the government has expressed its opinions about the free speech cases it has been equivocal. “We do not support violence or provocation to violence.” This is unacceptable in a case like this. The government has every right to condemn Nessma. It has every right to condemn the film. It has every right to encourage Tunisians to boycott the film or its supporters.

But it is cowardly to not defend the people who translate art against prosecution; to not call for the end of authoritarian restrictions on speech; and to not differentiate between free speech and provocations.

*This paragraph originally identified Boughnim as the translator based on an outdated article on Tunisia Live. Tunisia Live has subsequently updated their article, stating: “Karoui was fined 2,400 dinars. In addition, Hedi Boughnim, programming director at Nessma TV, and Nedia Jamal, president of the women’s organization that dubbed the movie, were each fined 1,200 dinars.”

The deeply troubling arrests of the “Mahdia Affair”

A disturbing story from the coastal town of Mahdia in Tunisia has inflamed passions in the ongoing religious debates in Tunisia. The story involves two Tunisians sentenced to seven years of prison for posting offensive pictures on Facebook. First some details, from Reuters:

Two young Tunisians have been sentenced to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of the prophet Mohammad on Facebook, in a case that has fueled allegations the country’s new Islamist leaders are gagging free speech….”They were sentenced … to seven years in prison for violation of morality, and disturbing public order,” said Chokri Nefti, a justice ministry spokesman….The sentence was handed down on March 28 but was not reported until Thursday, when bloggers started posting information about the case on the Internet.

The Tunisian bloggers who wrote about it include Olfa Riahi, who wrote about the story for the open source Tunisian website Nawaat. She provides an interesting and thorough account of the proceedings, including an extended interview with the prosecuting lawyer.

The government avoided taking a hard stand on the issue. Tunisia Live reported:

When asked about the judge’s decision to impose a maximum sentence, Chokri Nafti, press attaché of the Ministry of Justice asserted that the judge “is independent and free to choose the minimal or the maximal sentence.” He argued that “as long the judge respects the law and does not arrive at a verdict that contradicts the law, we cannot interfere in the decision of the court.”

Tunisian public responses to the case have, as usual, been mixed. While many have condemned the conviction, others see the Facebook posts as more than just the private expression of individuals, but as an incitement to disturb the public order. Others have fallen in the middle, condemning the offensive acts while calling for civil fines against the accused.

The issue of publication of offensive materials continues to be a sensitive issue in the country. The fact that Tunisia still has a Ben Ali era criminal law code has made these cases even more extreme. The two men were prosecuted under a section of the criminal code used by Ben Ali to imprison anyone who went against the regime.

One thing is certain, these sentences will, just as in the Ben Ali era, make Facebook users think twice before posting their personal views. That is a true irony in post-revolutionary Tunisia – the authorities may not be watching – but free speech is anything but assured.

Are press freedoms in Tunisia really in the crosshairs? Refuting Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post wasn’t the first to sound the danger alarm – but his op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday was clear, Tunisia is back-sliding on press freedom. The article has been cited numerous times in the last two days as evidence that the Arab Spring, even in Tunisia, is turning cold (see here, here, here, and here).

Unfortunately for Americans, whose news on Tunisia is few and far between, Abrams analysis is inaccurate and prosaic and a miscaracterization of the very important debate Tunisia is having over the judicial system, the media, and basic freedoms.

Abrams says: “Tunisia is everyone’s favorite Arab country nowadays, the one where the Arab Spring started and that has the best chance to “make it” to democracy. So it would be especially disturbing if Tunisia, and its supposedly moderate Islamist government, led by the Ennahda party, went off track…..Yet several prosecutions in Tunisia show that old habits die hard.”

He goes on to highlight two cases as evidence that Tunisia is sliding back into the totalitarian darkness of Ben Ali. The first case involves Nessma TV’s owner Nabil Karoui, who faces criminal charges for disturbing public order and violating sacred values over his station’s airing of the French/Iranian cartoon Persepolis last October. The film depicted God in human form, a sacrilege to most Muslims. (For more background on the case see here and here.)

The second case involves local newspaper publisher Nasreddine Ben Saida. His newspaper, Attounsia, reprinted on its front page a GQ photo of half-Tunisian footballer Sami Khedira with his half-naked wife. Ben Saida also faced criminal charges for his offense, but was let off with a $600 fine.

First of all, Abrams is right – the two cases highlight problems that the country must address if it is to truly be considered to have a free press. Firstly, the fact that both cases were prosecuted under criminal law is deeply disturbing. As Amnesty International observes: “the public prosecutor bypassed a new Press Law which took effect in November 2011, resorting instead to using Article 121 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals.”

But Abrams dismisses Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s agreement with the use of civil penalties for Ben Saida, and his rejection of what he called “Ben Ali era judgments.” Rather, Abrams is skeptical: “Ghannouchi’s finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed.”

Essentially, Abrams is accusing of the ruling party of attacking the press because of one case that, while still ongoing, took place prior to the elections and another case which is essentially the same as existing American laws on public decency (In fact, if one wants to get technical, Abrams worked for the same administration that in 2006 increased fines for media companies accused of public indecency – and the GQ photo is surprisingly similar to the incident that set off a public debate in the States – the infamous Janet Jackson “nip slip”).

There are legitimate concerns about press freedoms in Tunisia. The country has one of the worst track records for press freedom in the world, and the way in which both cases have been prosecuted raise important concerns. Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have all actively both lobbied the Tunisian government and raised awareness of free speech among the citizenry. They have also correctly sounded the alarm bells about reported abuses by the government.

While Tunisians won a victory in the high court last month regarding internet censorship, the fight is far from over. As Reporters Without Borders stated: “This is good news, although we would have preferred that the court had given a final ruling…“We call once again on the Tunisian justice system to reject Internet filtering once and for all on appeal.”

As I have written about previously, Ennahdha is unhappy at the press coverage they have received and have called for greater objectivity by the media. Media advocates are being vigilant because these recent statements, which many have called attacks on the free press. While their vigilence is commendable and necessary, it is also important to point out that parties have every right to criticize the media. In fact, it would be difficult to find a partisan Democrat or Republican who did not question the medias intentions and biases.

After reading Mr. Abrams, I do wonder what his real motivations are – are they to encourage real support for democracy in the region? Or is he trying to undermine the U.S. government efforts in the country?

He states: “the U.S. government has been silent [on these cases]. Tunisian liberals say that the U.S. Embassy in Tunis is unengaged with their efforts to make sure the Tunisian model remains one of expanding freedom. The State Department and the White House have said nothing about these incidents.”

I, for one, am happy the the U.S. State Department is not commenting on the Tunisian nipplegate.

Rather, Secretary Clinton decided to focus her visit last month on what matters: visiting civil society and the country’s youth, meeting its political leaders – oh, and committing $190 million in development assistance. Rather than focusing on Tunisian footballers and their model wives, Clinton was focusing on getting funds dispersed to organizations working to make Tunisian civil rights the model for the region.

Perhaps instead of focusing on GQ, Mr. Abrams could have used the opportunity to salute Tunisians on a week in which two women stood up for all Tunisians against obscurantism. Or to raise awareness that today Tunisians around the world are  marking the anniversary of the death of cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui with Tunisian National Day for Internet Freedom*.

The U.S. can play a positive role in Tunisia. And Mr. Abrams is right about being vigilent with Tunisia’s new government – no one gets a free pass on civil rights. The fight for freedom in Tunisia is far from over. But it takes more than platitudes and misinformation to change a country.

*Mr. Yahyaoui died as a result of ongoing health problems from the torture he suffered as a prisoner in one of Ben Ali’s gulags. He was one of many that died in Tunisia for reporting the truth and his courage inspired a generation of Tunisians to stand up for their rights to information.