Censorship in Tunisia takes on religious tone

The fall of El Abidin Ben Ali has paved the way for the emergence of moral and religious censorship, despite opening the doors for freedom of speech and ending internet censorship.

Just like the left, the right have benefited from the fall of the wall of fear. They have organised themselves in political parties or organisations, stage protests to condemn cultural events they consider as “religious harassment,” and attempt to bring to justice those whose acts have “undermined Islam”.

Recently French weeklies Le Point and L’Express were kept from newsstands. The issue of L’Express contained representation of the Prophet, while the front page of Le Point included the headline “questions and answers on the existence of God”.

On 3 January, the Tunisian Press Company (Sotupresse), responsible for distribution of foreign magazines and newspapers in Tunisia, claimed in a press release that the editors of the two French weeklies decided to send the issues to Tunisia, and that Sotupresse did not distribute them “out of respect for the sacred values of Islam, and the Tunisian people.”

A number of upcoming legal cases will determine the extent to which such censorship threatens freedom of speech in post-revolt Tunisia. Two crucial tests are due before the courts; including a demand that the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) filter online pornographic content, and the trial of a TV station director for broadcasting the film Persepolis.

Following a complaint lodged by three lawyers demanding the filtering of pornographic content on the internet,  a court in Tunis issued a verdict on 26 May of last year ordering the Tunisian Internet Agency to block access to pornographic websites. The ATI took the case to the Court of Appeal of Tunis, but lost the appeal on 15 August.

In early February, the ATI will appeal to the court of cassation ( the highest court of appeal) claiming that “the filtering of pornographic websites listed by Smart Filter could not be carried out for the five internet service providers”.

The lawyers demanding the filtering of porn claim that they are trying to protect children surfing the net. The Tunisian Internet Agency, desperate to break all ties with its old image as Internet censurer during the rule of Ben Ali, prefers to raise awareness of both netizens and parents by giving them practical tips on the use of parental control software, rather than censorship.

On 23 January, Nabil Karoui, director of Nessma TV, a private Tunisian channel, along with two of his employees will stand trial for airing the French-Iranian film Persepolis, a few weeks before last year’s election in October. Karoui, who risks three years in prison is accused of ‘’defaming Islam’’ and ‘’causing public disorder’’.

The broadcast of Persepolis, which includes a scene depicting god as a white-bearded man, sparked a wave of protests. The home of Karoui and headquarters of Nessma TV were also attacked. Depictions of god and religious figures are prohibited in Sunni Islam.

Reporters without Borders expressed concern about “the danger posed to media freedom in Tunisia by the increase in religious extremism’’, in an open letter to the new Tunisian government. The group said legal proceedings brought against Nessma “shows that Tunisia’s journalists and media need more than ever for the country’s authorities to defend freedom of expression and the right of its journalists to be able to work without being harassed”.

For free speech advocates, red lines such as moral and religious values can be used as pretexts to crash opponent voices, and pave the way for censorship’s return. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the legal proceedings of the Tunisian Internet Agency, and Nessma TV.