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.

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.