Young Tunisian Democracy Faces First Freedom of Expression Fight After 'Persepolis' Protests

On October 7th, 2011, just a few weeks before Tunisia held its first democratic elections since the Jasmine Revolution, Nessma TV broadcast the Franco-Iranian movie Persepolis

What followed was akin to the country’s first test of freedom of expression.

Persepolis, which portrays the Iranian Revolution (before, during, and after) through the eyes of a young girl, caused passionate protests among the Tunisia's conservative religious groups because of a scene that depicts God, which some say is forbidden by Islam. 

Conservative groups, including the Salafis, protested first at the televisions station and then later threw Molotov cocktails at Nabil Karoui’s, the director of the privately owned Nessma TV, home.

The subsequent trial of Nabil Karoui will prove a decisive indicator of the path the new government will take regarding freedom of speech. But the leading party Ennahda must be inclusive of all voices in Tunisian society (many of which were formerly brutally repressed by the Ben Ali government), and at the same time protect the right to freedom of speech, for the sake of all factions this fledgling democracy.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the trial of Nabil Karoui is based on Ben Ali-era laws: article 48 of the old press code for libeling a religion, and article 121(3) of the penal code for distributing or displaying info “that can harm public order or good morals.”

The trial, which has changed dates three times, is now scheduled for April 19th.  Karoui could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

"It's the trial of 10 million Tunisians who dreamed of having a democratic country,” Karoui recently stated.

Religious groups aren’t the only ones being vocal about this trial. Downtown Tunis recently saw a gathering of thousands of secular-minded citizens in a rally against the trial and its implications.

The gathering led to minor clashes between the two factions as Hamadi Redissi, a columnist and professor, and Zied Krichen, editor at the newspaper Al Maghreb, tried to leave the rally (as captured on YouTube).

This trial is pitting two of Tunisia’s most passionate and opposite groups in a tête-à-tête for the future of the country.

While Tunisia has long considered itself a beacon of cosmopolitanism, it is clear that this image is not a cohesive one throughout the country. After years of colonial rule under the French, and the subsequent years under two dictators, the country now is faced with emerging dissident voices that were before easily silenced through authoritarian rule. For years a secular identity was forced upon the nation, but now that the country is faced with a clean slate, voices that were long suppressed are emerging. Though there are strong voices fighting for freedom of speech and retention of its liberal identity, it is clear the country has its work cut out for it in the coming years to form a cohesive and inclusive identity as a new democracy.

This trial will be a strong indicator of what will come. The new government must take a strong stand against the accusations against Nabil Karoui, for it will have subsequent and strong implications for the freedom of speech in this budding democracy. If ruling Islamist party Ennahda wants to maintain progress, freedom of speech, representation and work towards building a strong and free press, then it must act against these charges and support freedom of speech in Tunisia.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons