Threat to free speech feared in Tunisia

© Imed Bensaied/France 24

Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party has sparked fears over freedom of speech after calling for a new law against religious defamation and showing a willingness to censure artists and media in the country.


in Tunis

Helicopters hovered over the Tunisian capital of Tunis, armoured vehicles were stationed at busy intersections, while masked security forces hurried loiterers along. There was a palpable tension in the air as mosques across the city opened their doors for the Friday noon prayers.

Just a few days before, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. The incendiary cartoon publications came barely a week after a group of Salafists demonstrating against the anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims,” attacked the US embassy in Tunis. Four people were killed in the fray.

With anger exploding across the Muslim world, the French Foreign Ministry was taking no chances on this, the first Friday after the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons. The French embassy in Tunis as well as French international schools and mission offices across the country had closed for an extended weekend as the capital became the focus of international attention.

Security lockdown

In the end, there was no repeat of the violent demonstrations at the US Embassy. The Tunisian government’s ban on demonstrations, coupled with the increased security, had worked.

But the outcry against “Innocence of Muslims” and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons led to renewed calls by Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party for legislation against religious defamation.

“In Tunisia, there’s a Pavlovian response to anything related to Islam. Vulnerable youth, who have a superficial knowledge of religion, can easily fall prey to provocation,” Abdelhamid Jelassi, vice-president of the Ennahda party, told FRANCE 24. “Has the film encouraged those skilled at dialogue or those who have a propensity for confrontation? Do we want coexistence between groups based on understanding in Tunisia, or do we want conflict?”

Ennahda is the largest party in Tunisia’s ruling coalition government, which came into power in October 2011, nine months after longstanding Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in the first of the Arab uprisings.

The Islamist party has introduced a controversial draft law to the National Assembly that would criminalise any “injury, profanity, derision and representation of Allah and [the Prophet] Mohammed”. Under the proposed law, those found guilty could face up to two years in prison.

Efforts to criminalise religious defamation have been criticised by several prominent cultural and media figures in Tunisia, a country that is now known as the cradle of the Arab Spring – as well as the Islamist wave that followed it.

“Since the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, restrictions on talking about politics have fallen away, but now there are restrictions on talking about religion instead,” said Mona Ben Hamadi, a journalist for the French-language website Businessnews.

‘Artists just as much a target as their work’

In the corridors of El Teatro, a cultural center in the heart of Tunis, the seeming insouciance on the faces of actors at a rehearsal contrasts with the growing anxiety engulfing the country’s cultural scene. At the forefront is Zeyneb Farhat, El Teatro’s director, who has managed to maintain a space for free expression over the past 23 years through laborious negotiations with the government.

“Ennahda’s stance on society is an insult to freedom of expression because it is not a dynamic, open or spiritual interpretation of the Koran,” said Farhat. “The Islamists are increasingly overrun by their radical base and have turned to their Salafist supporters to crack down on freedom of expression. Artists are as much a target as the work they produce.”

Farhat’s comments referred to a number of incidents, including one in June when a group of Salafists attacked an exposition called the “Artistic Spring” at the Abdellia palace in the suburbs just north of Tunis. The day after the violence, the authorities called a curfew and the minister of culture, Mahdi Mabrouk, announced his intention to take legal action not against the attackers, but the event organisers instead.

From ‘non-believers’ to ‘counter-revolutionaries’

No longer repressed by the constraints of Ben Ali’s regime, Tunisia is now discovering new demons within its societal framework.

“In the space of 10 months, Tunisia has become more divided than ever,” Farhat said. “Today, you either have faith or you don’t. It was never like that before.”

Ennahda, however, argues that tensions within Tunisian society have less to do with religion than with politics.

“The problem in Tunisia is not an issue of believers and non-believers, or between the Islamists and non-Islamists, but more of an issue of those who embrace the values of the revolution and those who are against it,” said Ennahda’s Jelassi.

Senior Ennahda officials believe the country’s media falls into the latter category, with one party member even going so far as to publicly label it a “counter-revolutionary force”. Much like the world of art and literature, news media have also been targeted by Tunisia’s new leaders. Just one day after the Islamist party won a majority in parliament on October 23, 2011, it scrapped new measures to reform the country’s press laws.

“It is just like it was before. It’s almost as though they forgot the political and social earthquake that happened and that the people rejected the way things worked under the old system,” said Riadh Ferjani, a professor at Tunis’ La Manouba university who specialises in media studies.

Ennahda has also been accused of appointing individuals close to the party in top positions at the official Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) news agency, as well as at the head of the National Television Establishment (Etablissement de la télévision nationale, or ETN).

Calculated plan or incompetence?

Proponents of freedom of expression in Tunisia have also expressed alarm over legal actions carried out against media organisations deemed too provocative. In March, a Tunisian court fined the chief of the country’s Attounissia newspaper 1,000 dinars (500 euros) for violating public decency after publishing photos of a football player and his semi-nude girlfriend. In a similar incident, the head of the Nessma television channel was also fined for broadcasting the animated film “Persepolis”.

“What are Ennahda’s priorities? To defend the principles of freedom of expression or those of morality and religion?” asked renowned Tunisian author and journalist Samy Ghorbal. “We are still far from a theocracy, but the moment a state chooses to act as a moral guardian rather than protect human rights, then we’ve changed models. Criminalising religious defamation, for example, is taking us to the brink of becoming an Islamic state.”

With Tunisia in the midst of drafting a new constitution, Ennahda’s position of power has sparked fears of institutional change. Some have even accused the Islamist party of orchestrating a sinister plan to force the country into a new dictatorship.

“Looking at the facts, it’s very worrying,” said Ferjani. “Even more so because Ennahda is made up of factions that are incredibly secretive.”

Others, however, attribute the situation to Ennahda’s inexperience in government.

“Thanks to their incompetence, clumsiness and poor management, they’re going to end up losing all credibility,” said Farhat. “There are mornings when we wake up and feel as though we have every reason to hope, and others when we lose hope. Under Ben Ali, we were a depressed population. After 10 months of Ennahda, we’ve become schizophrenic.”

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