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, 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.

NPR Series on Tunisia looks at politics, women, presidents, and booze

Filling up on legmi by the side of the road

NPR reporters buying moonshine on the side of the road. Photo by John Poole, NPR

NPR’s Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Tunisia this week on the first leg of a road trip across North Africa. He’s filed a number of interesting reports that are well worth checking out.

Some highlights:

Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity – including an interview with Ferida Lebidi, a member of the Constituent Assembly from Ennahdha. She talk about political repression under the former regime and, interestingly, how she would like to institute the death penalty for adulterers.

Some Taboos Vanish In Tunisia, Replaced By Others – discussing religious taboos replacing political taboos and new censorship in Tunisia. Money quote: “Tunisia is the laboratory of the Arab world. We are today addressing all the questions we should have addressed one century ago. We are negotiating our past, our common values, where are the red lines of the freedom of speech.”

Tunisia’s Leader: Activist, Exile And Now President – An interview with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki. Money quote: “We badly need the help of our friends in Europe, in the United States, because Tunisia is now a kind of lab — the whole Arab world is watching,” he said. “This year, which is the most dangerous year because it’s the year after the revolution, and the level of expectation is very, very high. And people are waiting for everything — for a miracle.”

Once Tolerated, Alcohol Now Creates Rift In Tunisia– Stories are rampant about attacks on the alcohol industry in Tunisia, but Inskeep provides us with this nugget: “Since Tunisia’s revolution, the company that brews Celtia has reported sales have actually increased. And that company is a state-run enterprise. That means that technically the Islamist party now dominating the government is in the brewing business.”

And finally, Inskeep gives us the story we’ve all been waiting for – how to make Tunisian moonshine.

Road Brew: How To Make Hooch With Tunisian Date Juice (Or Try) – After sampling Tunisian date wine – the NPR photographer stated: “It’s like one-third maple syrup to two-thirds water, but with a hint of dates.” And, after trying to make it in what must have been a dare – “What remained in the bottle was “unbelievably foul.”


Victimization without leadership – a new paradigm

It’s been a busy two weeks in Tunisian politics. In foreign policy, Tunisia hosted the Friends of Syria summit; on the domestic front, crippling strikes set off a wave of recriminations between labor and the government, the government and journalists continued their standoff, and the Constituent Assembly began debate over the role of religion in the new constitution.

A common theme throughout these debates has been the self victimization by political parties .

Take for example the labor unrest. To hear the government say it, recent strikes by the country’s largest trade union are anarchists trying to destabilize the country (according to the foreign minister) or former regime officials trying to destabilize the country (according to the prime minister. The anthem is that the UGTT (the main union) is trying to insert itself into politics – an area it doesn’t belong. The result, according to Ennahdha supporters, is that the country is destabilized and Ennahdha can do nothing to get the economy back on track – the country is being held hostage by these corrupt, rapacious syndicates. It could not be based, as the UGTT says, on the poverty level salaries (less than 2 dollars a day) being offered for labor.

Of course, from Ennahdha’s perspective, the sabotage against their agenda is largely encouraged if not outright supported by the anti-Ennahdha press. According to the Tunisian Interior Minister, the media are largely responsible for the decline in tourism and foreign direct investment. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s president, called on the media to be more objective. To the chagrin of Tunisian journalists, Ghannouchi seems to want the media to be less critical of the government’s work. Quite a sign only one year after the end of a dictatorial regime.

Of course, Ennahdha’s not the only group claiming to be a victim. To hear it from left-wing activists, Ennahdha’s victory (which was illegimitimate) is being supported by the colonial powers, mostly the U.S. and Qatar, who very well may have been behind the so called reovlution to begin with. To many Tunisians, the uprising was merely a short period of action in between being played for pawns by the world’s powers. In other words, they got played – and the country is paying the price.

On both sides, it’s an unfortunate discourse. Victimization, a brother of conspiracy theories, absolves one of responsibilities and makes one an object of one’s circumstances, rather than a subject.

There are signs of hope. Tunisian foreign policy, as Alex Warren points out in a recent article in Foreign Policy, has been increasingly assertive. While the Friends of Syria conference and President Moncef Marzouki’s efforts to revive the Arab Maghreb Union have been derided by many in Tunisia, they do show signs of leadership and a willingness to take risks. So far, however, the winning hand seems to go to the victims.


A note on “Jihadi Soft Power in Tunisia”

Tunisia has recently focused its attention to victims of extreme weather that has affected large parts of the country, particularly in the west and north of the country. The historic winter weather, with some regions receiving over 6 feet of snow, has brought out the best in Tunisians. Just days after the situation deteriorated, civic organizations organized solidarity caravans to help those affected. The relief efforts, which included providing food, blankets, and tarps, were badly needed and much appreciated by local populations.

But as Aaron Zelin, publisher of the Wasat and Jihadology websites notes, it wasn’t just Tunisian civil society that mobilized. Far right wing jihadists in Tunisia also answered the call to provide relief to their compatriots and coreligionists.

He notes:

On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihadfi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate.

Zelin goes on to examine the implications these kinds of efforts might have in recruiting people to their cause, and what that might mean to Ennahdha. The entire article is well worth a read.

I have two brief observations:

Firstly, Zelin’s piece shows a side of the religious right in Tunisia that is often ignored or dismissed. Secular elites often belittle salafists as backwards “beardos” who want to drag Tunisia back to the 7th Century, without ever looking at what might be appealing about their cause. The reality is that groups like Ansar al-Shariah appeal to those who think that the country has been off course because it has gotten away from its moral grounding. It’s likely that while the majority of Tunisians take a markedly more moderate stance toward religion, few would object to the kind of aid the group is providing.

Secondly, Zelin’s work exposes limitations in the Tunisian press to the diversity of opinion in Tunisia right now. When Zalin approached me about the situation, I have to be honest, I’d never heard of Ansar al-Shari’ah or their aid caravan. While I had read dozens of articles about the relief efforts of civil society, businesses, political parties, and foreign governments, Ansar al-Shari’ah never came up. One thing is certain though, the town of Haidra, the beneficiaries of the group’s aid, know very well about the group now.

These problems exposes a real danger for Tunisia. Despite the lifting of press restrictions after the revolution, there remains both an inablility to recognize why some Tunisians are drawn to hard-line ideologies and this is reinforced by an echo chamber of like minded beliefs. While culture wars rage on Facebook, there is little true public understanding of the groups that are waging war for Tunisian public opinion in the neighborhoods and small towns across Tunisia.

Top posts in 2011 – Pornography trumps all

What can I say about this, if you want page hits, use pornography in the title of your post. In 2011 I published 50 articles on my blog, which went live in mid-June. Besides the anomaly of porno (an article about the ongoing internet censorship debates in Tunisia), my readership has increased steadily over the last six months, though especially at the time of the historic elections in October 2011. Three out of my top five articles were published the week of the elections. Rounding out the list is my article from last month on the anniversary of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

Voila the top 5:


Give me my porno!

What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha

Gallery: Election day arrives in Tunisia

Ben Ali’s Propaganda from Bouazizi to January 14

5 best Tunisian elections videos

Thinking about Arab autocracies as protection rackets

Daniel Brumberg‘s recent article in Foreign Policy caught my eye. He identifies the reason that Arab dictators were able to stay in power for so long – that basically they all shared the features of a mafioso protection racket. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

I would suggest that we think about Arab autocracies as protection rackets. The latter pivoted around an exchange by which regimes provided a diverse range of groups — ethnic or religious minorities, the business sector, and secular activists — with a haven from the uncertainties of an open democratic process. If many elites accepted this bargain, they did so because they feared that competitive elections would produce assemblies that would undercut their de facto social or political liberties in the name of the majority. In the Arab world, autocracy with would-be democrats has been a long-standing phenomenon.

He then goes on to describe that in Tunisia’s smoother transition is due (at least in part) to the former regime’s repressiveness. He says (bolding  mine):

in Tunisia, a protection racket system that was far more closed and repressive than that of Egypt collapsed, thus setting the stage for genuine democratization. Several factors particular to Tunisia account for this more optimistic story. First, because the small, 30,000-man professional military had been long ago subordinated to the political apparatus, Islamist and secular leaders could not easily appeal to any authoritarian enforcer to arbitrate competing visions of democratic life. When the 135,000-strong security forces then demonstrated neither the will nor the capacity to violently repress the uprising, the crony-based ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party melted away, thus leaving Islamists and secularists with little choice but to make peace or fight.

Indeed, the near total collapse of the ruling apparatus created a relatively open and unchartered political field, reducing the opportunities for manipulation by all players. While secularists clearly feared that Islamists had a substantial organizational advantage, no party had sufficient information that might have tempted one or more to pursue transition modalities designed to serve narrow or selfish interests. Even when the September negotiations over the procedures for a constituent assembly seemed at their most polarized, everyone pulled back from the brink and compromised. Finally, the presence of a large urban middle class that cut across the Islamist-secular divide provided further incentive for cooperation. Thus out of the ashes of one of North Africa’s most repressive systems competitive democracy seems to be emerging.

Overall, I liked Brumberg’s article, but this strikes me as a bit over the top. Brumberg seems to conflate the RCD with the ruling government apparatus.

He’s correct that the RCD did, for the most part go away – though not of their own volition. In fact, after a period of laying low, many former RCDists tried to resurrect their fortunes during the electoral cycle. The reason they did not succeed (compared to the NPD in Egypt, for example), was due in large part to the electoral system, rather than their lack of trying. I would argue that without a party list, proportional representative election, we would likely see a lot more former RCDists in the Assembly today. The fact that the elections were based on political parties rather than personalities closed this door.

Brumberg then goes on to talk about the collapse of the ruling apparatus. Though this is perhaps implicit in his argument, I think it is important to further delineate what this collapse was, because it did not occur in the business sector or in the government – where those who were in power largely remained in power throughout the transition. Rather, the ruling apparatus was Ben Ali’s family, which had taken control of a large section of the Tunisian economy. This relatively small group of people was the target of most of the rage against the regime. To most Tunisians, it was not the RCD or corrupt bureacrats or bankers – but rather the family that forced those people to be corrupt. With the removal of the head, Tunisians were open to hearing different voices, secular, Islamist and otherwise.

One final point that is perhaps  the luck of history. In February, as strikes and sit-ins paralyzed the country – all of the political actors were able to coalesce around the figure of Caid Beji Essebsi. An octogenarian product of the Bourguiba regime, he was publicly seen as honest and trustworthy and among political actors he was seen as too old to pose a real threat to their interests (unlike Essebsi’s predecessor Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was seen as very close to the Ben Ali regime). Essebsi was all but forgotten in Tunisian politics at that point, and if the uprising had not taken place this year, but rather in a few years time, he may have been unable to step up. Essebsi was able to open the political space for the Ben Achour commission to do the important work of preparing for the elections and negotiating the ground rules of the transition between all political parties.