Tunisian court case exposes rift over free speech in new democracy

The Washington Post reports: Outside the courthouse, 16 armed police officers screen all comers, including hundreds of lawyers in flowing black robes. Beyond a wall of barbed wire, a throng of bearded young men angrily shout slogans. The scene sends a clear message: Could be trouble here.

The subject of all this attention is a short, hyperactive, wise-cracking TV mogul who smokes fat stogies, has 25 bodyguards on his payroll and is on trial over charges of libeling Islam.

Nabil Karoui owns the HBO of Tunisia, a satellite TV channel called Nessma (“Breeze”) that shows Hollywood movies and TV series.

A week before Tunisians voted in the fall for their first freely elected government since 1956, Nessma aired the French-language animated movie “Persepolis,” based on an Iranian exile’s graphic novel about a girl who comes of age during Iran’s 1979 revolution. In the weeks after the broadcast, Karoui’s house was destroyed by a mob of vandals and Nessma’s offices were repeatedly attacked — all because of a short scene in which the girl imagines herself talking to God, who appears as an old man with a long, white beard.

Now, Karoui’s on trial, and so is Tunisia’s year-old revolution and the young democracy it has wrought. For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.

Last month, on this capital city’s main boulevard, Islamist activists attacked actors who were celebrating World Theater Day; Islamists smashed musical instruments and hurled eggs. A hard-line preacher stood in front of Tunis’s Grand Synagogue and called for the murder of Tunisian Jews. And a Tunisian philosopher who showed up at a TV station for a debate on Islam was shouted down by extremists, who said he was no scholar of the faith because he has no beard.

In each case, calls for a state crackdown on offensive speech banged up against cries for the government to defend even unpopular expression. Karoui’s day in court became a nonstop, seven-hour shoutfest that will determine whether he is fined, imprisoned, or worse.

Time now reports: After months of legal battle, Nessma TV owner Nabil Karoui was fined 2,400 Tunisian dinars (about $1,400) for violating public morals and disturbing public order, a small sum for a man whose channel is wildly popular across North Africa for its glitzy entertainment shows like Star Academy, the region’s equivalent of American Idol, and for sponsoring sporting events.

The timing of Thursday’s judgment against Karoui could hardly be more awkward for this government. It came, no less, on World Press Freedom Day, whose U.N.-sponsored meeting is taking place this year in Tunis, where the government has pitched itself as a moderate Western-friendly ally since the 24-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali collapsed in January last year, setting off the revolutionary wave that has upended this entire region. Hundreds of journalists and diplomats on Thursday began gathering in this breezy Mediterranean capital for meetings about free speech on Friday and Saturday. In the presidential palace, Tunisia’s interim President Moncef Marzouki told TIME that while the country has an independent judiciary, he himself abhorred the judge’s decision against Karoui. “I think this verdict is bad for the image of Tunisia,” he said. “Now people in the rest of the world will only be talking about this when they talk about Tunisia.”

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