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.

Debate continues over women’s rights in the new Tunisian constitution

As I noted in my post of August 3, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly created controversy when the commission on rights and liberties approved an article in the constitution that states: women’s rights should be protected under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country.

Women’s rights groups reacted strongly to the language, which has been seen by many in the country as an attempt to undermine women’s rights . As Aljazeera noted: “When Tunisia’s National Constitutional Assembly published the new draft constitution, a storm broke out over its words about women. Thousands of Tunisians were not impressed. “Oh woman, rebel – guarantee your rights in the constitution,” chanted supporters of gender equality as they marched on August 13 from the 14 January Square to the Conference Palace in the capital of Tunis…Estimates placed the number of protesters between 5,000 and 30,000. “Equality all the way – no complementarity in the constitution,” they shouted. Sister marches were held across Tunisia, in celebration of National Women’s Day [which celebrates the signing into law of the personal status code].”

How Ennahda sees it
Ennahda responded to these protests by reaffirming that it sees men and women as equal and considered the debate over the subject politicized by its opponents. Many in the party saw the law as nothing more than a misunderstanding over words.

The National explains: “Complementarity is at the heart of how Ennahda sees the role of women: party members believe that women have an equal, but different, role to play in the society. This is not an uncommon view among religious groups, especially from the Abrahamic faiths, who believe God created mankind in pairs and assigned different roles to each gender. That makes this proposed insertion of women’s “complementary” role something of a political misfire. Ennahda is picking an unnecessary fight. The party tried to row back a bit from the wording, arguing that “complementarity should be construed in a positive way”, according to Farida Abidi, an assembly member. She pointed out that there is a clear article in the proposed constitution: “All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law notwithstanding any kind of discrimination whatsoever.” But this is slightly disingenuous. What critics of complementarity are arguing for is the freedom to choose roles in society. Equal treatment before the law is not the same as equal participation in society.”

Monica Marks argues that Tunisians, the media, and activists have misinterpreted what she considers to be the correct Arabic translation used in the draft law, preferring to translate complementarity as fulfillment of each other. It should be noted, however, many in the Ennahda movement have embraced the language of complementarity, including party leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Regardless of the true intentions of the language, and the continued support for the article by Ennahda’s leadership, Marks says that the language is unlikely to pass. She writes in the FP “It is unlikely that Article 28 will pass muster with the revisionary committee scheduled to edit and harmonize this draft constitution over the coming months. Sihem Badi, Tunisia’s Minister of Women and Families, has already spoken out against the law, and a prominent female representative of Ennahda, Ms. Souad Abderrahim, has also suggested it is in need of revision. Though Ennahda controls a majority of seats on the rights and liberties committee, it will have a difficult time obtaining the necessary 109 out of 217 total votes needed within the constituent assembly to pass the article. Ennahda holds 41 percent of seats in the current constituent assembly — enough for a plurality, but not enough to bulldoze an absolute majority of parliamentarians into voting for the law.”

More controversially, and questionably (given that the constitution will be the high law and the basis for all civil law, including the PSC), Marks argues the law will have no effect on women in Tunisia. “Even if the article does pass as it is currently formulated, it is unlikely to seriously undermine women’s current legal standing in Tunisia. The law does not contradict or negate Tunisia’s Personal Status Code — a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1956 that continues to set Tunisia apart as the most progressive Arab country regarding women’s rights. The Personal Status Code prohibited polygamy and gave women the right to divorce.

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s party leader, rejects Marks and embraces the language of complementarity in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique:

The article on the Rights of the Child adopted by the commission rights and freedoms of the Constituent Assembly gives full powers to the family education and care. There he not a disengagement of the state?

Nothing replaces the family. The role of government is to ensure that the structure is preserved. There is no question of sacrificing children to improve economic productivity. By children, we take responsibility, we must assume until the end. The State must also assume its responsibilities by providing education and care for children. Must intervene. For example, you cannot ask a woman who has six children to go to work, it must be given the means to raise them. We ask a lot of women.

For women, another article considers the complement of man. No there not a decline in women’s gains?

This is a good project. Who can deny that the man and woman complete each other? The woman alone can do nothing, man either. The man and woman are independent but complementary as the two halves of a bean. There is no incompatibility between gender equality and complementarity. Everyone needs his half to flourish. But women are free and responsible, and they are equal to men. The prayer of a woman is not worth less than a man, they fast in the same way. They are equal under God and the law, the law of God and of men.

Tunisian militant Emna Mnif also counters Marks on the law’s potential impact, arguing that the article in question is a direct attack on the personal status code. Stigmatization of women and the personal status code, which Tunisia earned in the wake of independence in 1956, is nothing other putting into doubt the process of emancipation and modernization of Tunisian society which has been a societal model that has been the exception in the Maghreb Tunisian and Arab-Muslim world…It is an infringement of rights of not only Tunisian women, but also those of the family and, more broadly, a society that values the individual, regardless of gender or condition, (an individual elevated to the level of citizen, sovereign and responsible, placed at the center of the foundation of the democratic state.”

Mnif’s argument about the family and the individual is also a major concern of human rights activists concerning this language. Giving familial rights, as Ghannouchi notes in his interview with Jeune Afrique, emphasizes a family structure as the center of the society, subverting the rights of individuals.

Beji Caid Essebsi condemned the draft law and called those who would call into question women’s rights similar to animals.

Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia

Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia in August, after a lull following the riots and curfew last month. From the legalization of Salafist political parties to reported attacks on individuals, politicians, and cultural events, this seemingly growing minority group continues to grab the attention of Tunisians and outsiders alike. The major headlines:

Attacks on cultural events

After three consecutive nights of Salafist demonstrations against cultural events, Le Figaro says that Salafists are imposing their morals on Tunisia. Tunisia Live provides on the ground reporting of the cancellation of cultural events.

From Beja: “The organizing committee of the summer festival of Goubellat in Tunisia’s northern governorate of Beja decided to cancel the twelfth edition of the event, which was scheduled to kick off last Thursday, August 2. The decision was made due to pressure put on the organizing committee by a group of individuals allegedly affiliated with the Salafist stream of Islam.”

One week earlier, a similar event was cancelled after Salafist protests in Sejnane, also in Northwest Tunisia.

On August 16 France 24 reported, “Hardline Islamists have prevented an Iranian group from performing at a Sufi festival in Kairouan, south of Tunis, deeming their Shiite chanting violated sacred values, Tunisian media reported on Thursday.

Meanwhile popular Tunisian comedian Lotfi Abdelli had his one man show cancelled in Menzel Bourguiba due to Salafist protests. From Al-Arabiya: “The comedian told private radio station Mosaique FM that the imam of the town in northern Tunisia had called for the show to be disrupted and accused Abdelli of offending Islam. “Bearded Muslims appeared at my show… They came and laid their prayer mats down in the auditorium in the morning, saying they were going to pray all day long,” he said. “The security forces were there and they told us that they hadn’t received any orders to intervene,” Abdelli added. “I was afraid, I’m not superman. I was there to have a good evening and a laugh, not to get beaten up.” Protesters also tried to disrupt a subsequent show of Abdelli’s in Sfax later in the month.

Attacks on politicians and shiites also made news.

On August 6, Tunisia Live reported that Abedlfattah Mourou was attacked at a conference on tolerance in Islam. “Yesterday, Abdelfatah Mourou, a prominent Tunisian Islamist figure, was hospitalized after he was attacked by an attendee of a conference entitled, Tolerance in Islam, which he was heading in Kairouan. The assailant struck Mourou in the head with what appeared to be a water glass following a dispute. Mourou passed out and was taken to the hospital, where he was given five stitches in the forehead.” Western Culturel blog has a video of the incident.

Attacks on Tunisian shiites were reported in Gabes and Bizerte, and condemned by human rights groups.

U.S. neo-con Elliott Abrams describes the events in Bizerte: Kuntar was referred to as the “Dean of the Lebanese Prisoners.”…He spent nearly thirty years in an Israeli prison (because Israel does not have the death penalty, except for Nazi war criminals) and was liberated in an exchange with Hezbollah in 2008 for the bodies of the kidnaped Israeli soldiers….So that is the man who was the honoree and center of attention in Bizerte. Here the story moves from the despicable to the absurd. Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist through and through, defended the Assad regime in Syria, which has now killed over 20,000 Sunnis. Accordingly, Salafi gangs using sticks and knives attacked the closing ceremony of the anti-Israel rally, shouting slogans that in essence accused Kuntar and the organizers of being pro-Shia. Several people were wounded badly enough to be hospitalized.

Four suspects were eventually arrested and then released.

What’s behind the attacks on shiites? Ennahda hardliner Sadok Chorou provides insight, saying in an interview, “Before the revolution, Shiism had been kept low-key. However, with the flow of freedom that prevailed in the country, cultural and informative seminars have been held to promote Shiism. It is very likely that the Iranian Cultural Center in Tunisia is playing a major role in spreading Shiism, for there are no Shiite institutions in the country. The promotion of Shiism is the result of foreign activity. Even the tide of Salafism is the result of foreign intervention, as some external parties are trying to spread it in Tunisia, which has become a pit of exported ideas and doctrines coming from the Gulf and Iran in particular.

Tunisian jihadi Abou Ayadh called on the government to stop the shiite wave in Tunisia and to “combat these enemies of Islam” (article includes pictures).

On August 22 the Culture Ministry condemned the attacks perpetrated by Salafists at El Aqsa Festival in Bizerte. The Ministry also condemned the proliferation of attacks against cultural events across the country, describing them as “dangerous drift.” The Ministry believed that “what had happened was not only an attack against freedom of expression and creation but also augurs of a sectarian conflict strange to our Tunisian society, known for its balance, tolerance and moderation.”

Much of the English-speaking press debated whether or not Salafist parties were a threat to Tunisian democracy. Anne Wolf writing in Open Democracy on Aug 14 urges us to use caution before condemning legalization of Salafist parties

The new Salafist party is indeed unlikely to be able to ‘tame’ the most violent and radical Salafists – even in the long-term – but it might eventually mobilise some of Tunisia’s religiously ultraconservative populace, particularly its disenchanted youth. Such a possible scenario is feared by many Tunisian liberals, who are fiercely opposed to the increasing role of religion in the country’s new democracy….But before rejecting Jabhat al-Islah in its entirety, it is worth bearing in mind what the Salafist alternative looks like: more secretive and potentially more violent movements spreading throughout the country

Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta concur, writing in Jadalliya:

In many ways Ennahda tends to see the Salafists as potential traveling companions who need to be re-educated and reintegrated into political institutions. The secular parties see them as ideological rivals and as anti-democratic, and therefore, mobilize strongly against them. Paradoxically, this interplay might positively reinforce the construction of a democratic and more liberal Tunisia because finally, all sorts of issues can be discussed in public, and differences about the nature and direction of the country can be aired. Thus, contrary to expectations, university elections rewarded leftist lists rather than the Islamist ones. It is for this reason that we also see contradictory behavior among Salafists, who at times use street violence to demonstrate against perceived attacks on religion, and at other times seem quite happy to refrain from demonstrating more forcefully against the government or reject the calls to violence coming from al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, despite proclaiming quite openly their admiration for international Jihadism.

Robin Wright, in a New York Times op-ed, cautions those who might support salafists. “Salafis are only one slice of a rapidly evolving Islamist spectrum. The variety of Islamists in the early 21st century recalls socialism’s many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women’s rights.”

Meanwhile Tunisian Meriem Dhaoudi is more alarmed.

Tunisia‘s hardcore Salafists emerged only after the popular uprising that resulted in toppling the dictator Ben Ali. This culture of Salafism was nurtured in Tunisia by a great influx of Wahhabi preachers welcome to Tunisia with the blessings and welcome of the Tunisian government.  Early this month Abdel Fattah Mourou, a founding member of the ruling party Ennahda was attacked and injured in a conference on religion and tolerance. Apparently the Association of Religion and Tolerance offended the sensitivities of the ultra-conservative Muslims whose ears have recently become accustomed to an intolerant discourse imported from the Gulf and orchestrated in order to generate hatred and violence in Tunisia.

The time has come to rebel against religious fanaticism in Tunisia. Hardline Islamism has become more visible and threatening in recent weeks starting from targeting the two Tunisian Olympic medalists Habiba Ghribi and Oussama Mellouli on social media networks for inappropriate clothing and anti-Islam behaviour.

While “Anglos” debated political inclusion of Salafists, the French press was busy writing about an attack, blamed on Salafists, on a French elected official in Tunisia. The Nouvel Observateur reports:

The shameful attack a few days ago suffered by  an elected member of the French Republic in Tunisia…Walking very peacefully with his family on a street in Bizerte, Jamel Gharbi, an elected official from Sarthe, was attacked by a Salafist gang of thugs. Staying behind to allow his wife and daughter to flee, he was beaten with fists and with clubs. He managed to escape, narrowly escaping a lynching pure and simple.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called the incident very serious, provoking an official apology by Tunisian officials. Nouvel Obs sees the event as a growing sign of fascism in Tunisia. “Everything happens as if Ennahda and the Salafists had divided the work: the first constructed a facade of democracy in Tunisia, the second implement the fierce repression of freedom of expression, (leading to) a de facto Islamization of Tunisian society.”

French weekly Marianne reports that Tunisian salafists are taking on the role of the police. It looks first at the recent headlines: “The Salafists are the police in Sidi Bouzid,” “Salafists abuse an imam of the mosque in the city Errahma El Khadhra” “Ennahdha at the heart of violence Wednesday night at El Hancha” “clashes between Salafists and Shiites in the city of Gabes “,” a French elected attacked by Salafis in Bizerte” but also a satirical Television producer arrested, artists prevented from going on stage, festivals canceled under threat from Salafis. In recent days, the headlines Tunisian speak volumes about the climate of fear that Islamists are spreading in the country. According to the website Maghreb Intelligence, several areas in central and south-eastern Tunisia “are now hostage to Salafist activists who have money from the Gulf countries and rely on the support of generous donors from the Tunisian diaspora in Europe.”

French weekly Le Point piles on, seeing a double sided game from Ennahda: “For the sociologist Samir Amghar there is in fact a real collusion between the two Islamist parties.”The leaders of Ennahda, being in power, are forced to keep a moderate speech in public,” he says. “But internally, a good portion of them agree with the Salafist ideology.” In this strategy, the Salafists are responsible for carrying out the behind the scenes “dirty work.” “The Salafists are putting pressure on the sensitivity of the Muslim Tunisian public opinion to create a balance of power in favor of Islamisation of society,” said the specialist in the movement. This may explain why, on August 1, Ennahda filed in the National Constituent Assembly a bill … punishing infringement of the sacred.”

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Ramses Kefi argues that people should calm down, Tunisia has not yet become Afghanistan, and his wife still wears a mini-skirt.