Don't Offend Islam In Post-Spring Tunisia


UNESCO focused its 3 May World Press Freedom Day events in Tunis, a symbolic move celebrating the hard-won privileges of a year of Arab uprisings. From the plush presidential palace he now calls home, former human rights activist Moncef Marzouki indulged in a Google Plus hangout to extol the virtues of the coalition government in which his leftist party is a junior partner with the Islamists of Ennahda.

But most journalists were crowded around the front of a colonial era courthouse on the other side of town, waiting for the result of the "Persepolis affair". The case was brought against Nessma TV for airing the animated French-Iranian film, due to the depiction of God in one short scene. The provocative broadcast had sparked violence from offended Salafists at the station’s HQ and the home of its owner.

Suddenly, there was a buzz of activity when news went around the sunny courtyard that the owner was to be fined 2400 Dinar (around AUD$1500) for showing the film, while a smaller fine went to those who dubbed it into Tunisian Arabic.

The ruling and subsequent message was clear. "Disturbing public order and threatening proper morals" — by offending Islam — was not going to be tolerated in post-revolution Tunisia. Prosecuting lawyers said they’d appeal the "lenient" sentence.

Observers criticised the prosecution of the defendant under President Ben Ali’s old press code, considering a new one was decided on by the post-revolution interim rulers. But it was dropped by the elected government, which argued it wasn’t suitably consulted.

Since the election, the same disputed section of the old code has been used to defend Islamic morality in another case, when a magazine owner was fined for putting a football star with an (artfully concealed) naked model on the cover. Still being processed are the cases of two men who are accused of posting a cartoon of the Prophet online. One reportedly fled to Europe, the other is appealing the seven and a half year sentence he received.

According to Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) conditions for journalists improved measurably after the revolution. Tunisia was the most improved Arab country on its press freedom index, climbing from 164th to 134th position in January.

But there are concerns that Ennahda’s strong showing in the election at the end of last year, which has enabled it to lead the governing coalition, has put paid to that advance.

RSF has called for clarity from the government about exactly which set of rules the courts are supposed to be using — new or old. Harassment of individual journalists and media outlets is becoming a major issue.

"What is clear is that it is getting worse and worse from the beginning of 2012 until now. The first period after the revolution was very troubled, but it was probably normal as it was new. (Since) the arrival of the new government … it’s getting worse and worse," says Olivia Gré, head of Tunis’s new RSF bureau, citing an increase in the number of cases of harassment of Tunisian journalists.

"In January we tried to report all the cases we saw," Gré told New Matilda. "But now it’s absolutely impossible. If we were to do that, we’d be sending press releases every day."

The harassment claims are picked up by Fahem Boukadous, a left-leaning journalist famed for his fearless reporting under the Ben Ali regime, which saw him beaten and jailed.

"Under Ben Ali the secret police was the only source of repression," he says.

Now, he says, in reference to threats from Salafist groups, "religious militia" and others monitor journalists "under the motif of protecting the morals and the religion."

For Boukadous, there is press freedom, but business interests also stand in the way.

"Newspapers are still owned by corrupt businessman who were close to the ex-regime who are unwilling to allow young talents who are capable of investigating serious cases like torture, bribery and corruption," he says.

Media outlets are also having to learn their respect. Years of official kowtowing mean distrust runs deep among the people.

Protests outside the state television building in Tunisia turned violent last month, where Islamist protesters were seeking to "cleanse" the building of ex-regime sympathisers.

State TV reporters and foreigners like me are often prevented from filming by hostile or distrustful crowds. Recently, an Al Jazeera reporter was also on the receiving end of abuse covering a political event featuring sympathisers of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

When it comes to the courts, the fear in some quarters is that a new form of aiming-to-please may sink in. The protesters who attacked Nessma TV after the initial airing of Persepolis received a fine which was small even by Tunisian standards: 9.6 dinar, around AUD$6.

"(Judges) served (former President) Ben Ali for a very long time, they got used to the former laws, to the use of the penal code," Gré says.

After the revolution it’s not impossible that the same form of thinking may emerge, she suggests. Judges may also "want to put Ennahda in their pocket".

On 9 April yearly celebrations to mark independence from France grew violent, when anti-Ennahda demonstrators clashed with police.

I saw police dish out violence to to those brandishing smartphones with cameras, but professional journalists did not escape unharmed. The headlines focused on the case of the French journalist who had her camera destroyed in a police beating in the centre of town.

A few weeks later, newspapers were branding 1 May as Ennahda’s day of reckoning.

But in the end, it appeared the message had come from on high to go easy. May Day demonstrations, predicted by Tunisians of all stripes to see some heavy clashes, passed by peacefully, with far less trouble for reporters.

The next day, I was sitting with a senior media officer in the offices of Ennahda, in one of many meetings I had in order to convince the party to let me interview their spiritual leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

A friendly man, he spent a good 10 minutes lecturing me on the success of the day from Ennahda’s viewpoint, and I couldn’t help but agree.

My next trip was a surprise visit. I was shocked to be finally ushered in to meet the man they call "The Sheikh". The last appointment had been postponed with little warning.

"We opt for a free media," Ghannouchi says when asked whether respect for Islam is more important that a free press.

"No magazine is forbidden or stopped," he says. No journalists have been arrested during the reign of the Ennahda government, he claims.

And the Persepolis affair? "The rights of people are guaranteed by law. If you are a journalist that doesn’t mean you can do anything. You have to respect others’ rights."

He illustrates his answer with stories of the media outlets he’s taken to court in the UK for defaming him in the past, before distancing his party from the courts closer to home.

"Everywhere if you face the law, you can be judged in the court, not in (sic) the executive," he says.

But after the revolution, it is only natural that the courts, the government and the media, need time to truly earn their stripes of independence in the eyes of the population.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.