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.

After extremists riot, political brinkmanship creates major risks for Tunisian revolution

A shocking display of political brinkmanship is underway in Tunis this week. While commentators, including myself, have called attention to the culture wars (see here and here), the real power play is a political one, pitting the three major political forces, Islamist, secular, and former regime, against each other.

The sight of riots consuming entire neighborhoods around the Tunisian capital, and the systemic violence against civil institutions has created shock waves throughout Tunisia. The violence and rioting caused the government to impose a curfew last night.

But the interesting part of the government’s response has been its continual and forceful condemnation of what they refer to as secular extremists. Artists, organizers, and their political supporters are, according to Ennahdha, the force behind the political discord that caused religious extremists to riot and they should be criminally prosecuted. The rioting was further provoked by elements of the former regime who have been trying to destabilize the Islamist government from the beginning in an attempt to bring back the bad-old days of Ben Ali.

Ennahdha is, according to this reasoning, the only political force that can both preserve Tunisia’s sacred symbols and traditions, while also bringing law and order to the country. Beginning on Sunday, Ennahdha ministers, parliamentarians, and its leader have repeatedly pointed out that their role is to protect the country from all forces that would endanger the values or security of the state. Action on the security element took place last night as a curfew was imposed on the capital and other regions. Action on the sacred was announced this morning by Ennahdha leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who called for a massive protest after Friday prayers to defend the country’s sacred values.

Friday’s protest will serve two purposes, both fitting with the underlying political logic. Firstly, the protest will allow Ennahdha to coopt the Salafi movements who have also called for protests and who risked showing a much more extreme face of Tunisia than the government wants to project. Secondly, the protest falls on the eve of a major event planned by former regime elements, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, who is planning on announcing a political movement the following day. Ennahdha’s call to protest, which will likely draw tens of thousands of supporters, will help neutralize Essebsi’s announcement the following day.

Former regime elements, meanwhile, will take advantage of the dramatic violence and unrest by calling for a return to law and order. Beji Caid Essebsi has long voiced his intentions to form a political movement – the centrist, secular party has scheduled its coming out party for this Saturday for over a month. Following on the heals of a major event in Monastir last March, Essebsi’s goals are to create a viable alternative to Ennahdha that capitalizes on the people’s desire for more security and, to many, a return to the politics of Habib Bourguiba, modern Tunisia’s founder and and authoritarian dictator in his own right. Those who think, such as the government, that former regime officials are behind the recent violence, see this coming weekend’s event as a little too coincidental – as most likely the main message from this Saturday will be that the Islamist-led government is in no position to govern and cannot control the extremists who want to take over the country.

Liberal secular politicians are caught between these two elements, one they see as a secular dictatorship, the other a religious one. And yet, they are in a difficult position because their defense of freedom of expression and universal rights is one that does not appear to be shared by the majority of the population. Ennahdha’s attacks on provocative artwork are widely supported in this conservative country, just as its position on the Persepolis trial, while highly mediatized in the West, cost them no political points. The secular left is stuck defending an unpopular position, and one that seems both elitist and anti-Islamic. While some politicians have come out forcefully against the attacks on art, there is mostly a sense of shock or resignation that they do not have popular backing for their position. Nevertheless, secular parties remain viable for their unabashed antipathy for religious extremists. While Bourguibist parties call for law and order, they are compromised by their authoritarian pasts which rounded up and jailed not just Islamists, but any opponent to the regime. Liberal secularists have no such baggage and will hammer the point that it was only a laxist government that could have allowed the kind of religious extremism that is new (and unpopular) in Tunisia.

Finally, there is the interesting positions of the CPR and Ettakatol parties. Leaders in the government along with Ennahdha, Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Moncef Marzouki backed the position of Ennahdha that the art work in question was provocative and inciteful. These parties have always towed a fine line between appearing supportive of the Islamist-majority government and adhering to their roots as secular, liberal parties. Their political calculus appears to be that their futures reside in unifying their positions in the government, even if it risks internal turmoil within the party and a loss of liberal bona fides.

Under a curfew, with riots and unrest in their fourth day, political forces appear to be playing a high-stakes game for the future of political leadership of the country. One gets the impression that the fuse has been lit. With reports of protester deaths coming in this morning, there is a risk that events could spiral beyond the control of the much-weakened police apparatus. One also gets the impression that pushing things to the brink is exactly what many politicians here are eager to do.

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.

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.