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Tunisia: animated movie sparks violent clashes between Islamists and Freedom Fighters

Freedom of speech is under contention in Tunisia as never before.
Kacem Jlidi
29 January 2012

“I was in front of the courthouse. A man ripped off the sign on which I had printed, "In the Quran, even Satan has the right to speak." One man came right up to me and threatened: “get out of here or we'll make you disappear”… Bearded men with black flags hurl names at us defenders of freedom of expression such as 'disbelievers' and other slogans that I cannot remember now…”

So Lilia Weslaty, human rights activist and journalist, describes her participation in today's gathering in support of  the Tunisian television channel, Nessma TV, and freedom of expression.  

On the other side, numerous Salafists chanted slogans such as, “Hey, Cowardly Media; Muslim people don’t be insulted!" and, "The people want the fall of this TV channel."

They also chanted a slogan inspired by one of the more bloodthirsty speeches of that dictator, Gaddafi, “street, street, house, house, we’re after you disbelievers”, designed to split Tunisians into two enemy camps.  

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Today’s trial is the result of the broadcast of the award-winning ‘Persepolis’, a film about the 1979 Iranian Revolution, told from the perspective of a little girl. The French animated movie aired in late October provoked angry reactions: it is alleged to be blasphemous because it includes a scene showing a representation of God.

Criminal proceedings are under way against the owner of the Tunisian television channel that screened the film. This is an affront to freedom of expression declared Amnesty International in the run-up to the trial, scheduled for January 23.

Nabil Karoui, owner of Nessma TV, is being judged for the violation of “sacred values” and “disturbing public order”. A complaint was filed against the owner and two employees of Nessma TV by 144 people, including lawyers. If convicted, Karoui might be sentenced to up to three years in prison. His house was set on fire on October 14 following a demonstration outside the offices of Nessma TV, in the centre of Tunis. A group of Salafists is suspected of being responsible for the incident.

"It is disturbing to see Nabil Karoui prosecuted only for releasing a film showing scenes depicting God", said Philip Luther, Acting Director of the programme in North Africa and Middle East at Amnesty International.

The trial has now been postponed to April 19. A couple of lawyers explained today that their position is to defend the Spirit of God as harmed by the cartoon representation. They claim they are the ones showing respect for the freedom of expression by carrying their offended feelings to court, “Every society has its own sacred beliefs which have to be respected and that’s the limit to freedom of expression”, says one of these lawyers.    

Today's is the first such 'opinion' case in the new Tunisia. They are not judging Nabil Karoui alone, but tens of millions of Tunisians and their dreams of democracy, freedom and progress.

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Earlier on today, Nabil Karoui announced his response to the ban forbidding the media to film the trial. This latest development, he thought was not a good sign:  

“I’m an optimist but I am also full of misgivings. We are being judged here. They burnt my house and even tried to kill a few of the people who work with me and my family. Those who did this are still free out there. I hope Tunisia won’t turn into another Guantanamo”. 

A Salafist guy is caught on tape today calling on others not to use violence against those who support Nessma TV’s case.

Nevertheless, a number of well-known journalists and public figures have been subject to verbal and physical violence today. Zied Krichen and Hamadi Redissi, a law professor at Tunis University, were subject to moral accusations and physical attack by Salafists gathering in front of the courthouse.

“I had to go out for a coffee before returning to the courtroom. And that's when some individuals targeted me personally and assaulted me. The academic Hamadi, who tried to protect me was also verbally abused and received the same punches and kicks”, says Zied Krichen.

Hamadi J’bali, Prime Minister of the newly elected government denounced these attacks in a comment aired later in the day.

Abd Halim Masoodi, journalist and TV presenter at Nessma TV was also beaten up today. It is thought that this might have been provoked by a recent debate in which the compere interrupted his guest Kamel Chihawi, a university professor who was arguing that the broadcast of the French-Iranian animated movie was a small cog in an altogether larger political machination. He alleged that this was part of a wider plan aimed at mobilising people's fears and scaring them off from the Islamists.

How else could you explain the broadcast of such a movie only two weeks prior to the elections, he argued. 

Questioned later, the TV presenter mentioned being present today to support the TV channel not as a journalist but a regular citizen who supports freedom of expression:

"A group of people gathered around me in a intimidating manner, acting as if they hold the one and only truth and are the sole authority anyone has to be answerable to. They called me perjorative terms like "Atheist!" and "Non-believer!" and then they hit me... "  

Tunisian journalists have been the target of multiple attacks in recent months, and some reports have alleged that these attacks were led by members of the security forces amongst others.

"Tunisia is progressing in some areas of human rights, but it clearly has much work to be done to respect freedom of expression," said Philip Luther.

Today’s trial is filling many different corners of the Tunisian web as well as the traditional media.

The recent Amnesty International report entitled “A year of rebellion. The human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa” shows that the provisional government of Tunisia has not yet developed the comprehensive reform of human rights demanded by the demonstrators a year ago.

One year after the ouster of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the authorities have taken some initial positive steps, including the adoption of important treaties on human rights. In general it is believed that they have given more freedom to the media and to organizations defending human rights.

In most cases, however, the country's security forces are still not brought to account for their actions. And victims of human rights violations continue to wait for justice, as Amnesty International confirmed in its recent press communique.

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