Banning blasphemy: New Tunisian bill threatens free speech

Tunisia’s ruling party, the Islamist Ennahdha movement, seek to criminalise blasphemy.

The Ennahdha party filed a blasphemy bill on 1 August in response to what their leaders describe as “a continuous increase in number of offences against the Sacred”. The bill aims to “providing legal protection to the Sacred”.

Ennahdha also complained about the absence of “a blasphemy legal basis” during the trial of Nessma TV boss Nabil Karoui, who in May was fined for “transgressing morality”, and “disturbing public order after broadcast the animated film Persepolis which shows depictions of God.  Ennahdha believe he should have been convicted of “offending” religion.

The bill lists Allah, Prophets, the three Abrahamic books (the Quran, Bible, and Torah), Sunnah (the sayings and teachings of Prophet Muhammad), churches, synagogues, and the Kaaba (Muslims’ holiest shrine) as sacred.

“Cursing, insulting, mocking, undermining, and desecrating” any of these symbols could lead to a two-year jail term and a 2,000 TND fine (794 GBP). The proposed bill would also forbid the pictorial representation of God, and Prophets.

Hichem Snoussi, the Tunisian representative of the freedom of speech NGO Article 19, told Index:

In France, and Germany there is a law which prohibits the denial of the Holocaust. Such a law [a blasphemy act] could be passed … But, the “sacred” has to be defined in a very specific and detailed way. This definition should not be expanded, so that it would not stand in the way of art and creativity.

The move comes amid a fierce local debate about freedom of expression and religion, which culminated in the Tunis-based Printemps des Arts fair in June. The fair was accused by Islamists and the government of displaying artworks “offensive” to Islam. On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close a gallery after ultra-conservative Islamists broke into the exhibition and destroyed three artworks.

“Today the debate on the “sacred” is part of electoral propaganda, and aims at diverting the public debate from its right direction,” Snoussi added. “We do not need chains. We need freedom to heal our past wounds.”


Concern as Tunisian media freedom body shuts down

On 4 July the National Authority for Information and Communication Reform (INRIC), a body enlisted with helping reform the media landscape in Tunisia, announced the end of its mission.

In April 2012 INRIC had submitted its report with a set of recommendations that would seek to pave the way for the transformation of the media landscape in the north African country into a democratic, independent, and pluralistic one.


Tunisia’s second coming

Six months after Tunisia’s first free elections, the country’s newspapers are filled with nostalgic longing for its former dictator. Even if his rule was a “veritable one-man-show”, muses La Presse, “was his dictatorship really harmful to Tunisia?” The accompanying hagiography leaves you in little doubt that this is meant as a question to which the answer is “no”. But there is no call for the dictator himself to be reinstalled. That is because the object of their affection is not the recently ousted President Ben Ali, but his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, and he died 12 years ago.

At a time when the fundamental basis of the Tunisian state is up for grabs, the invocation of the dead president’s spirit is telling. There is a section of society — perhaps of a certain age — that remains faithful to the memory of Bourguiba as the father of a modern, secular Tunisia. The fact that he was also an autocrat who persecuted the political Islamists now leading Tunisia’s transitional government is not without significance. The tensions between the forces of secularism and the religious right have come to define the post-revolutionary era.

It is important that Tunisians are able to have these debates in public. “Tunisia was almost destroyed by two things, and they both begin with C,” says Afef Abrougui, Index on Censorship’s Tunisian reporter, “corruption and censorship.” Decades of state censorship have left the profession of journalism in a poor state of repair. Nevertheless, the sharp and occasionally shrill criticism of the present government, in print and online, is an obvious sign of progress. Artists and musicians are able to think aloud about politics without the police politique taking front row seats. Whatever the theatrical merits of Facebook!, a sort of cyber-Brechtian dance interpretation of the 2011 protests on show at the Centre Culturel de Carthage, its singular virtue must be that it can be shown at all.

In spite of these advances, there are some worrying noises. In March of this year, some drama students chose to celebrate World Theatre Day by performing on the steps of the Theatre Municipal, the grand art nouveau building in the middle of Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. At the other end of the street, a group of over-exuberant Salafists decided to put on their own piece of street theatre. As the denouement of their demonstration in favour of a religious constitution, a few of their number decided to clamber up the 120-foot high, wrought-iron clock tower at the end of the street, planting the black flag of the Caliphate at its summit. Their mission accomplished, they made their way down the road and set upon the students, noisily denouncing their “lack of respect for religious sanctity”, and raining down bottles on their heads.

When anyone feels the need to stage a counter-demonstration against theatre, it is time to sit up and pay attention. The craven response of the Interior Ministry, however, was to prohibit demonstrations on Avenue Habib Bourguiba altogether (the ban was subsequently lifted after several violent confrontations between police and protestors). Parts of the street are now semi-militarised zones; government buildings and public spaces are wreathed in barbed-wire. Groups of bored-looking military police sit in canary-yellow buses, waiting for something to happen.

Like Avenue Habib Bourguiba, there are still some areas of free expression that are only entered at acute personal risk. This month, Nabil Karoui, the general director of Nessma TV, was prosecuted and fined for “violating sacred values”. His offence was allowing the animated film Persepolis to be shown on his station (it depicts Allah as an old man with a white beard). The two imams who called for his death are yet to be punished.

A sentence of 7 ½ years imprisonment for two young men who published a satire of the prophet Mohammed was endorsed by President Moncef Marzouki. “Attacks on the sacred symbols of Islam”, he said, “cannot be considered part of freedom of expression.” The literal-minded censorship of the sacred has been accompanied by an equally disturbing increase in private prosecutions for obscenity. Earlier this year, the publisher of the national newspaper Attounissia was charged with “disrupting public order and decency” for printing a picture of a Lena Gercke, girlfriend of  Real Madrid footballer Sami Khedira, on its front page. All these prosecutions have been brought under provisions of the Ben Ali-era criminal code, which remain on the statute book.

This creeping moral and religious censorship adds to the impression of a state slouching towards authoritarianism. In the name of national unity, the transitional government has time and again shown itself quick to curtail, and be slow to defend, the right of Tunisians to free expression. In the political turf war that is taking place in the country, there is a real danger that the forces of reaction will be permitted to mark out the boundaries of free speech in a way that imperils the advances of 2011.

Michael Parker is a London-based lawyer and writer on international and legal affairs.

Attacks against Tunisian journalists on the rise


In its annual report published on World Press Freedom Day (3 May), the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) announced that it had registered 60 physical assaults against journalists over the last year.

The syndicate criticised the “passivity and silence of the government” in response to the alarming increase in the number of assaults.

Multiple assaults were recorded in April alone. The most recent act of violence recorded took place on 30 April, when militants belonging to the Ennahda Movement, assaulted a journalist working for the collective blog Nawaat.

Ennahda is the largest party in Tunisia’s governing alliance and Emine M’tiraoui was attacked while he was at the headquarters of the party, after he conducted an interview with a party member.

In testimony published on, M’tiraoui said:

at the lobby of the party’s headquarters there was a fight and a woman was screaming. I had my camera with me, and it seems that my assaulters thought that I was filming what was going on. Though I had my press card, with my name and the name of Nawaat on it, a young militant in the movement circulated that I was “a leftist dog, and a police officer loyal to one of Tunisia’s leftist figures.

The attack continued outside the party’s headquarters. “Outside I fell to the ground…there were police officers who witnessed the assaults but they did not interfere to stop [it]” he told Index.

In less than a month M’tiraoui has been assaulted twice. On 9 April, militants of another prominent political party in Tunisia, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) beat him while he was covering the party’s conference.

According to the estimates from Aymen Rezgui, member of the press syndicate’s executive board, one assault is registered every week. This increase in the number of assaults is due to “police’s laxity, and to the attempts of a number of political parties to incite public opinion against journalists,” Rezgui explains.

Leaders of Ennahda, which heads the three-party coalition government, have often expressed their dissatisfaction with the media’s coverage of the government. In an interview with Radio Express FM on 25 April, Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s president, accused state television station, Wataniya 1 of having “an anti revolutionary and biased editorial line which rejoices at the defeat of the legitimate government”.

“There is a clear hostility towards the government” he added.

The SNJT, on the other hand, accuses the government of seeking to tighten control over the media sector. In its report the SNJT denounced attempts to force “the media sector to follow the political vision of the government”.