Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Of Footballers And Moral Boundaries

German-Tunisian footballer (soccer player) Sami Khedira is kind of a big deal back home. Not only does he play for the German National team, which placed third at the '06 World Cup and second at the '08 Euro Cup, but he's also on the pitch for Real Madrid - second only to FC Barcelona. And Tunisia's football obsessed. So it is natural that he would be profiled by a newspaper. Attounissia ran a story on Khedira accompanied with a photo of Khedira and his German supermodel wife from a GQ cover: 

That was enough to land the publisher, editor in chief and foreign affairs editor in jail after the so-called prosecutor of the republic ordered their detention on grounds of violating public morals, according to the AP. An investigation is pending. 

In the meantime, the paper is fighting back. In the last several hours it has published two editorials decrying the prosecution as a "shocking precedent" threatening censorship of the press and in another detailing the support the paper has received from the National Union of Journalists (which called for “the immediate release of all journalists and the rejection of intimidation against reporters.”), the Association of Culture and Technology, and the International Federation of Journalists, along with stating that the battleground of the "Revolution Is Back". (Both links in Arabic). 

For many Tunisians it is an omission sign about the intentions of the moderate Islamist-led government and speaks to larger fears over the minor but vocal Salafite movement that has threatened and even physically attacked liberal artists and broadcasters (the paper received a bomb threat likely emanating from this circle and is being guarded by police). Many fear that the ruling party, al Nahda, will clamp down on similar papers that cross the party's definition of public morality. 

Many have taken to Facebook - where more than a fifth of the nation congregates - to condemn the arrest as a throwback to the ancien regime. The page "For a free, moderate and tolerant Tunisia" even made a mock cover with obvious inference: 

The most popular radio station, MosaiqueFM, (known for its liberal line), attacked the government for acting so quickly against journalists in the name of a photo while still not prosecuting those responsible for killing over 200 Tunisian civilians during the December 2010-January 2011 uprising that toppled ex-president Ben Ali. 

All this raises questions as to where public moral boundaries will be drawn in the future. Few, if any, nations allow unfettered freedom - at least on public airways. America's FCC imposes prohibited fines that compel broadcasters - TV and radio - to follow guidelines on "indecency" without strictly engaging in censorship. And remember the outcry over the Janet Jackson Super Bowl haft time show that introduced the 5-minute delay and self-censorship by the networks, and exiled Howard Stern to satelliet radio? 

Of course, there is a line between fines and actual detention and prosecution. Tunisia's freedom of the press is not under threat (yet, anyhow). Public morals are a common theme in Western democracies (A 1949 French law, for instances, bans the favorable portray of cowardice in children's books). Tunisia's parameters of public printing and broadcasting will likely entail a long struggle involving courts and parliamentary debate, and occasional loosening and tightening of permissible imagery and discourse. 

Furthermore, it is a healthy sign that civil society and the paper have responded so forcefully in defending their rights. Such a robust counter-attack augurs well for securing freedom of expression. And legal rights are upheld so prosecution, if it goes forward, is likely to be fair and not arbitrary. 

In all, a snapshot as an Arab nation continues to define the boundaries of its nascent democracy. 

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