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.

Give me my porno!

There is a pornography war going on in Tunisia right now. On one side are conservatives who want to defend children against harmful images, on the other liberal freedom of speech advocates and internet geeks who know the power of government censorship of the internet. Behind the debate is the history of censorship in Tunisia and the powerful role of the state.

Poster against censorship and internet blocking in Tunisia

Internet censorship – Tunisian style

The first time I came to Tunisia was in 1999, five years before Facebook, 6 years before YouTube, and only a few months after the launch of Google. The dial up connections were pretty slow, and internet cafes were few and far between, but it was definitely possible to connect – as long as you chose the right site. I found that sites like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others were completely blocked. As it turned out, this was just the beginning of one of the longest and most thorough attacks on internet freedom by one of the most fearful and repressive regimes.

By the time I came back to Tunisia in 2010, things were much darker. The tentacles of government censorship were not only longer, they were more invasive into the private lives of individuals. The government no longer wanted its citizens to not access information about its repressive practices, it wanted to know what they were writing on Facebook and to the their friends over email. During this period, a visitor in Tunisia could expect, shortly after they first accessed their email, to see a security message from Facebook or Gmail or Yahoo indicating that someone had tried to access his account and that it may be necessary to change the password. This was the government internet spies, who had purchased elaborate systems to hack user accounts. YouTube was blocked entirely. (For more details on the scale of internet censorship in Tunisia under Ben Ali, see Nate Anderson’s article in Wired from January 2011)

And then came the uprising and the fall of the regime. Within a few weeks, the internet was entirely unblocked. Tunisians were as free as anyone else in the world to access what they wanted online.

That is, until a recent court decision that banned online pornography, following a challenge by three lawyers that claimed that pornography was bad for children, and the state had a duty to protect them.

Rendez-moi mon porno

The story started back in January when the internet was finally opened up completely – including pornography. Subsequent revelations about the extent of the censorship and the technology used added to the fear in Tunisia that any kind of censorship would be a return to the practices of the ancien regime.

Meanwhile, the blogger and Anonymous hero Slim Amamou became a member of the cabinet, championing the cause of internet freedom and opening the government up to the internet.

In May, the era of internet freedom began to unravel. The posting of an online video of Farhat Raji, a former minister, that suggested that the military could overturn an election won by the Islamists caused riots and the government brought back an overnight curfew. Later that month, the military tribunal forced the closure of several facebook pages after the page owners suggested that a coup d’etat was imminent. This led to the resignation of Slim Amamou from the interim government.

As these serious allegations and counter allegations were rocking the government and the internet community, enter the claim of the three lawyers. The claim did not identify specific sites nor was their any group that came forward to back the claim by these lawyers. The government agency that regulates internet traffic in Tunisia, in somewhat of a surprise move, came out against the ban on pornography, winning an injunction against the claim. This was later overruled, but the agency was able to make the case that a blanket ban on pornography would invite much broader censorship than just nudie sites.

For the segment of the Tunisian population that, above all, fears the re-imposition of censorship, the argument is that their are plenty of ways to censure the internet within your own home, the government doesn’t need to do for you. Right? After all, that’s how it works in the West….

Since the ruling was challenged, the question of whether will Tunisians get their porno or not has been one of the most popular stories in the Tunisian blogosphere. It has been one of the most popular issues of the past two months  on Nawaat.org, a Tunisian website that closely tracks post-revolutionary issues and has over 50,000 followers.

In one of the most popular articles (in French only) Rendez-moi mon porno or “Give me Back my Porno,” blogger Adam Jerbi  contests the notion that the State can simply ban a genre of websites based on the complaint of certain members of society. Jerbi’s article was countered and supported by other articles, which have gathered nearly as  many views and comments.

Liberalism is butting up against a society that has always relied on the state as the role model and arbiter for mores. Many of the comments came from readers who likened pornography to rape itself, thus making the state responsible for the protection of the victims of this humiliation. In a society that is still very much conservative, this issue touches at the core of the debates that many Tunisians are having right now. How much freedom is too much? What is the role of the state? Who is responsible for morality?

The West has often had these debates. Zoning laws are still major issues for communities that face the choice of having adult book stores in their communities. The difference is that those who are pushing for internet freedoms in Tunisia are not the Larry Flynts of the world. Nor are they supporters of pornography. They are those that know the power of giving the government the ability to control sources of information. To many of them, the January revolution was about censorship and internet freedom, and they see these recent decisions as a major step back on their quest for democratic institutions.