State of Freedom of Speech in Tunisia in 2012

In 2012, the battle for freedom of expression continued in Tunisia. Though the internet remained uncensored, free speech advocates voiced concerns over the use of religion as a pretext to curb free speech. Meanwhile, a legal void has characterized the Tunisian media landscape as the government continues to ignore a new press law that protects journalists and limits government interference in media.

An uncensored web access :

In February, the highest court of appeal threw out a verdict ordering the filtering of X-rated content. In early September, Tunisia joined the Freedom Online Coalition [en], a group of governments “committed to collaborating to advance internet freedom”. The northernmost African country will also host the coalition's third conference next year.

Despite these positive steps from a country which once was an “internet enemy”, activists remain particularly concerned about the absence of an investigation into internet surveillance and censorship during the former regime. In an interview given to Global Voices, anonymous political cartoonist _Z_ said:

Dictatorship fell 19 months ago, and so far not a single serious investigation into the policing of the web [during the Ben Ali regime] was conducted. This machine, we called Ammar 404, and which was used to spread horror on the Tunisian net (censorship, arrests, threats…), could still be in place today waiting for a reactivation signal.

In August, a group of bloggers and activists vowed to lodge a complaint [en] against the Tunisian Interior Ministry, in order to reveal the identity of those responsible for giving filtering instructions.

Tunisian Internet users also remain at risk of judicial prosecution. In March, 2012, Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri were convicted [en] to seven and half-years in prison over the publication of content offensive to Islam. Mejri, who is still in prison after losing appeal [en], published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. Beji who fled the country, published a book called “The Illusion of Islam” on the document-sharing website Scribd.

Poster of a campaign for freedom of speech organized by Nawaat and IFEX-TMG in May, 2012

Blasphemy :

On August 1, Ennhadha Movement – the party which won last year’s parliamentary election – filed an anti-blasphemy bill [en], to be introduced to the country's Penal Code. The bill has not been debated yet by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), elected back in October, 2011, to draft the country's new constitution. A week later, the first draft of Tunisia's new constitution was released. The draft contained a clause criminalizing blasphemy. However, following negotiations between the three parties in the ruling coalition, the clause was dropped.

On December 14, the NCA published an amended version of the draft constitution on its website. The new draft does not include a blasphemy clause, guarantees free speech and prohibits prior censorship.

Ennahdha's vows to criminalize blasphemy followed the controversial Spring of Arts [en], a modern contemporary art fair held between June 1 and 10. On June 10, ultra conservative protesters attacked Palais Abdelia, where the fair's closing ceremony was held, and vandalized artworks exhibited there. The protesters accused the fair of exhibiting blasphemous artworks, something the fair's organizers denied. The violent protests were ignited by rumors circulating on the social networking site Facebook, claiming that the fair exhibited a painting depicting Prophet Muhammad.

On May 3, a Tunis-based primary court fined Nabil Karoui, director of the privately owned Nessma TV, 1,200 TND over the broadcast of the animated film Persepolis.

Media executives behind bars:

On February 15, Nasreddine Ben Saida, the general director of the Arabic-language daily newspaper Attounissia was arrested, along with two of the newspaper's journalists, over the publication of a front page photo featuring football player Sami Khedira with his nude girlfriend. The three were later on released.

[from right to left] President Moncef Marzouki, PM Hamadi Jebali and leader of the Islamist party Ennahdha Rached Ghannouchi performing a song on the puppet show Logique Siyasi.

In late August, a Tunis based court ordered the arrest of Sami Fehri, a TV producer and director of Attounissia TV channel, on corruption charges. Fehri co-owned a production company with a Ben Ali in-law.

Before turning himself to the police, Fehri declared that a media advisor to PM Hamdai Jebali, called him to complain about the broadcast of the satirical puppet show, Logique Siyasi [political logic]. The show was suspended in August, but the TV network has recently resumed its broadcast. Fehri was not released despite a verdict issued by the highest court of appeal on November 28, quashing his indictment and detention order [en]. In protest against his ongoing detention, he went on hunger strike. On December 27, he was transferred to hospital after his reported health deterioration.

Press Freedom:

Journalists protest against perceived government interference on October 17. Photo by Rabii Kalboussi

On October 17, Tunisian journalists went on strike to protest against what they described as the government's attempts to curb press freedom and control state-owned media outlets. Journalists also called the government to implement two decree laws adopted in November, 2011, by the former interim government. The two laws [en] (decrees 115 and 116) guarantee freedom of press and independence of state-owned media.

Military and Censorship:

On May 21, an army general confiscated two cameras for Ramzi Bettibi a journalist for the collective blog Nawaat. Bettibi was filming a court hearing in the case of the death of protesters during the uprising that toppled the regime of Ben Ali. For a few days, Bettibi went on hunger strike to call for the lift of restrictions on the coverage of court hearings in what is known as “Martyrs’ case”.

Ayoub Massoudi, a former advisor to current President Moncef Marzouki faces military trial over his televised declarations on the extradition of former Gaddafi PM from Tunisia to Libya. Massoudi described the extradition of Baghdadi Mahmoudi as “a treason against the State” and accused Rachid Ammar [Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces] and Abdelkrim Zbidi [Minister of Defence] of not notifying President Marzouki about the extradition process which took place on June 14. On September 21, Messoudi was given a four-month suspended prison sentence. The next court hearing will take place on January 3.

Trial of Graffiti:

“Free Zwewla” Graffiti by Crazy Boys

Oussama Bouagila and Chahine Berriche, graffiti artists and members of the street art community, Zwewla [the poor in Tunisian dialect] are facing legal action for drawing graffiti in support of the poor. They were charged with “writing, without permission, on public property”, “breaching the state of emergency” and “publishing fake news that could disturb public order”. On December 5, a primary court delayed their trial to January 23, 2013.

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