Tunisia's new freedoms don't apply to all
TUNIS // Revolution in Tunisia has shattered the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, offering Tunisians unfettered freedom to debate and criticise. Almost.
A glaring exception is Samir Feriani, a security official arrested in May after fingering interior ministry officials for alleged human-rights abuses. Now Mr Feriani is under investigation for allegedly harming security and falsely accusing state agents.
"In general the revolution brought free speech, but Samir Feriani is in jail for something he said," said Samir Ben Amor, one of his lawyers.
Mr Feriani's predicament is just one example of the challenges facing Tunisia as it struggles to make free speech official and after decades of censure.
That struggle includes scrapping laws used to punish government critics, training media in journalistic ethics and loosening state control of the internet, according to journalists, bloggers and Mr Ben Amor.
Despite an overall climate of freedom since January, police have responded to some peaceful protests with truncheons and tear gas, arresting demonstrators and allegedly beating some in custody, said a report last week by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, the end of Mr Ben Ali's secularist regime has unleashed sometimes violent debate on social values and the role of religion.
Last month dozens of men barged into a cinema in Tunis, assaulting movie-goers and disrupting the screening of Secularism, Inshallah by the atheist filmmaker Nadia el Fani.
Mrs El Fani said that she never intended her film, originally titled Neither Allah nor Master, to cause controversy. "I made it to open a debate: should religion be private or should it influence politics?"
Nevertheless, three lawyers are suing Mrs el Fani for allegedly insulting Islam. While she says that the accusation does not deserve the courts' attention, some conservative Muslims think differently.
"The film was provocative," said Atef, 29, an administration member at Tunis's Al Manar University mosque who declined to give his surname. "I'm against violence but I understand why people were angry. Unfortunately, media focus on incidents that give Muslims a bad image."
Regardless of whether that claim is true, most Tunisians agree that Mr Ben Ali's rule left a media industry in dire need of reform.
"For decades, journalists were tools in the hands of power," said Kamel Labidi, a journalist and president of the National Council for Information and Communication Reform, a state advisory body created after Mr Ben Ali's departure.
Before the revolution, Tunisian media under pressure from the state avoided sensitive topics in favour of government communiqués and fawning coverage of Mr Ben Ali.
"There's a huge gap between the journalism practised for the last 20 years and professional norms," Mr Labidi said. Mr Labidi's council is encouraging Tunisian media to learn from foreign press experts and Tunisian journalists who have worked abroad.
It is also pushing for laws to secure public access to state archives and ensure that political parties get equal media coverage ahead of elections in October, and for a constitutional guarantee of press freedom.
For now, Tunisia's news industry is evolving beyond traditional media, said Mr Labidi. "We have bloggers and online journalists equally involved in the battle for free expression."
Case in point is Nawaat.org, a political blog that won the 2011 Netizen prize for promotion of free speech on the internet from Reporters Without Borders. Last month, Nawaat was threatened with a lawsuit by the Lebanese journalist Antoine Sfeir, named in an article on the "Ben Ali dictatorship's Lebanese sycophants".
A letter to Nawaat from Mr Sfeir's lawyer about the article "didn't cite specific passages, and Antoine didn't accept our invitation to use his right of reply", said Malek Khadraoui, one of Nawaat's founders.
The California-hosted site is insulated from lawsuits by internet protection laws there, said its co-founder Sami Ben Gharbia. "But no website can feel safe if it's hosted in Tunisia because the government has control of the hosting services."
That arrangement leaves the door open for authorities to censor the internet arbitrarily, Mr Khadraoui said. While formerly extensive control of the internet disappeared with Mr Ben Ali, the state internet agency has since blocked four Facebook pages that a military court said incited violence, and has said it will block pornographic sites at the behest of a civil court.
"Before, when they closed a site, we didn't know why. At least now we do," Mr Khadraoui said. "But while I'm not defending pornography, this lets the administration decide what constitutes pornography, to block sites as it sees fit."
An arbitrary decision also appears to have landed Mr Feriani in jail, said Mr Ben Amor. While most government critics have spoken freely since the revolution, authorities used Ben Ali-era laws to go after Mr Feriani, he said.
Mr Feriani was arrested after Tunisian media began reporting on letters he wrote to the interior and prime minister, accusing interior ministry officials of involvement in the deaths of protesters during Tunisia's January revolution and of destroying sensitive documents, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Mr Feriani can be held for up to 14 months while under investigation, said Mr Ben Amor. "Frankly, his best defence now is to prove the claims he has made. We're trying to get authorities to open investigations. We're still waiting."
Updated: July 24, 2011 04:00 AM