Tunisia arrests 3 journalists in morality dispute

TUNIS Thu Feb 16, 2012 1:27pm EST

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Three Tunisian journalists have been arrested after publishing a photograph of a footballer frolicking with a nude woman, raising fears of a media crackdown by the country's new Islamist rulers.

The Attounissia newspaper printed a photograph on Wednesday of German-Tunisian football player Sami Khedira of Real Madrid dressed in a tuxedo with his hands covering the breasts of his otherwise naked German model girlfriend, Lena Gercke.

The photograph drew an angry response from the country's public prosecutor who ordered the detention of Nasreddine Ben Said, Attounissia's publisher, Habib Guizani, its editor-in- chief, and Hedi Hidhri, the editor of its world section, according to Chokri Nafti, a spokesman for the Justice ministry.

The three were accused of offending public morality and would be held pending the results of the investigation, he added.

The trio are the first journalists to be arrested since the revolution a year ago which ousted Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who had tightly censored the media.

The arrests have raised fears among secular Tunisians that the Islamist-led government will increasingly seek to censor material it deems offensive to its religious morals.

Tunisia's journalists' union called in a statement for the "immediate release of all journalists and the rejection of intimidation against reporters."

On Facebook, thousands of Tunisians launched a campaign to support the journalists and to defend freedom of expression.

"This issue is political and aims to quell the voice of the media and stop it criticizing the government .. it is a very serious indicator," Jihen Lagmari, a journalist at Attounissia told Reuters

She added that journalists at the newspaper had received anonymous phone calls threatening to set fire to the building, which is now being guarded by police.

The government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, only came to power in elections in October but is already facing strong opposition in secular newspapers. Its critics have also spoken out against its decision to try a local television channel for showing Persepolis, a film whose animated depiction of God outraged conservative Salafi Islamists.

Tunisia's once-staid media has enjoyed a new lease of life since the removal of Ben Ali, but activists say the government is now seeking to impose new controls on the media.

Last month, hundreds of journalists demonstrated outside the office of the prime minister to demand an end to restrictions on media freedoms after the appointment of government officials and editors to state television positions.

The government has repeatedly denied accusations it is seeking to stifle the media.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara, Editing by Lin Noueihed and Andrew Osborn)

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