TUNIS (Reuters) - Islamists attacked Nessma television station in October for airing an Iranian animated film that depicted God, accusing it of stirring up trouble on the eve of Tunisia’s first election since the uprising that ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Police detained the protesters, but also put Nessma’s boss on trial. Among the charges: violating “sacred values”.
In February, Nassredine Ben Saida, the publisher of a tabloid newspaper set up after the revolution, was jailed for eight days and fined after he plastered a picture of a German-Tunisian footballer and his naked girlfriend on the front page.
Tunisian journalists and secularists fear these and other incidents are signs the interim government wants to roll back gains in freedom of expression after the uprising.
What concerns many is that legal action has tended to focus on issues of public morality and ignore important issues such as the poor sourcing and libel that plague the profession. With the ban on criticism of the government only recently lifted, Tunisian journalists worry that they are tripping over new red lines.
The standoff between the media, dominated by secularists, and the government, now led by Islamist moderates Ennahda, reflects a broader struggle over identity in what has for decades been among the Arab world’s most secular countries.
Sitting in the whitewashed villa that houses the journalists union, Nejiba Hamrouni said the new government still viewed the media with suspicion.
“What we see daily is not a return to censorship, but efforts to influence journalists and guide them towards a particular editorial line, particular figures, particular issues,” said Hamrouni, elected to lead the union last year.
Secularists accuse Ennahda of pandering to conservatives who have become more assertive since the uprising.
In December, an Islamist preacher forced the new chief of Zaitouna radio, which mainly airs Koran recitals, out of her job. The preacher, Adel al-Ilmi, later won government approval to set up an NGO that seeks to promote Muslim values and would like to ban newspapers from publishing pictures of scantily-clad women.
Ilmi called it respect for religion. Securalists and journalists call it an attack on freedom of expression.
“The government is causing the problems, not us. They think anyone who criticizes them is an apostate,” said Saida Zoghlali, who was taking part in an anti-government protest outside the interior ministry on February 25.
“Anyone who criticizes them gets attacked.”
Zoghlali had been standing peacefully, holding up a placard, when police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstration, saying its allotted time was up. Several journalists covering the protesters who stayed were beaten and insulted by police.
The incident drew condemnation from both secularist groups and the journalists union. Though police violence against journalists has been rare since last year’s revolt, that day’s tactics were reminiscent of Ben Ali’s Tunisia.
“The way the police insulted journalists and the brutality with which they dealt with some of them signals a clear return to the use of police violence against the media,” Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement at the time.
“The only explanation for this behavior by the police was their fear of seeing photos and video of their... unjustified actions in the media. This renewed outbreak of tension between police and journalists is very worrying. Something must be done to defuse it, or else such scenes will recur.”
The government denies that it is clamping down on freedom of the press.
In a news conference just two days before the incident, the head of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, faced a barrage of questions on such freedoms. He responded that it was the media that was running amok and helping to polarize the political debate.
“We want the media to be professional,” he said. “No one wants public or private media to praise the government. We don’t want to go from praise to praise. We want it to be objective.”
Tunisian journalists say that, despite challenges, they have been among the biggest winners of the revolution.
More than 100 new print titles have appeared to serve a nation of just 10 million. Twelve new radio stations have opened and three new satellite channels are now on air.
Journalists no longer face intimidation, state censors have been sent home and a new generation has stepped into the fray.
In the bustling offices of Tunisia Live, an English-language online newspaper born in the throes of the uprising, groups of young journalists excitedly discuss the day’s hottest stories.
The creative buzz as Tunisia Live’s founders oversee the building of a television studio would have been unimaginable in the staid days of state control, when newspapers were packed with praise of Ben Ali and photographs of the first lady.
Conceived by Zied Mhirsi and Youssef Gaigi, both fluent English-speakers, as they helped the international media navigate Tunisia during the revolution, it highlights how far and how quickly young, educated Tunisians can go in only months.
“When the revolution began we were sensitive to the fact that no one was writing in English,” said Mhirsi, whose team has now grown to 30. “We started with a very little blog, poor quality.”
But the speed and scale of change has also left the media sector in a muddle. Sensationalism is rife, especially when it comes to the Islamist debate. Sourcing can be poor. Rumors spread fast.
For pioneering online media, including Tunisia Live, it has been a struggle to get recognized and to find funding.
On the other end of the spectrum, powerful political or business figures have opened newspapers aimed less at objective reporting than promoting their election campaigns or interests.
“There is definitely a vacuum. Everyone is trying to occupy as much space as they can,” Mhirsi said.
A new media law drafted by an independent committee during the interim period in 2011 has been praised by legal and media experts. But journalists say it has yet to be implemented.
Press accreditations are no longer issued by the information ministry, shut down after the revolution, but the government has yet to set up the independent media authority the new law has stipulated should accredit journalists and oversee the sector.
The new law bans the arrest of journalists. But when Ben Saida was detained over the racy footballer photo on charges of offending public morals and taste, the public prosecutor ignored the media law.
He turned, instead, to Tunisia’s penal code, which has yet to be rewritten and still allows for the arrest of journalists.
“We had been calling for the implementation of the new law but now we are also calling... for the cancellation of clauses in the penal code that infringe on freedom,” said Hamrouni.
“Under Ben Ali, it was understandable. His was a dictatorial regime. But why would the new government, which is meant to be a revolutionary government, resort to the penal code?”
The trial against Nessma owner Nabil Karoui is still going on. In addition to violating sacred values, or blasphemy, Karoui is also charged with disturbing public order on grounds that airing the film around the time of the elections was provocative.
The Iranian film was advertised as the story of a revolution ruined by the rise of Islamists, an analogy that critics say was lost on no one in the charged atmosphere of post-revolutionary Tunisia. Journalists and secularists said the charges are no more than a crackdown on freedom of expression.
Diplomats say it will take time for a new media authority to be set up, for standards of journalism to rise and for confusion over the role of free expression in a democracy to clear.
“We are still learning democracy in Tunisia, not just as journalists, all Tunisians,” said Hamrouni. “We are learning how to be democrats so we can accept opposing opinions and accept criticism in the media in its role as the Fourth Estate.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall