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

Monday, March 12, 2012

Press Freedom Under Attack In Tunisia?

A short while back I wrote about the controversy surrounding a Tunisian paper's decision to reprint a photograph of a German-Tunisian footballer alongside his nearly-naked wife (see above). State authorities labeled it indecent and sent the prosecutors against the editor and two other individuals employed by the press organ.

Well, a verdict has been reached. The AP reports:

A Tunisian court on Thursday fined a newspaper publisher $665 for printing a photograph of a soccer player posing with his nude girlfriend, a ruling that raised concerns about a possible media crackdown by the country’s new Islamist government. The newspaper, Attounissia, a tabloid created after the revolution that ousted President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali last year, published the photograph last month of Sami Khedira, a player for Real Madrid who is Tunisian and German, dressed in a tuxedo with his hands covering the breasts of his naked girlfriend, Lena Gercke, who is a German model. The publisher, Nasreddine Ben Saida, was fined for offending public morals and taste, the official TAP news agency reported.

The AP's judgement that this whole spectacle is cause for concern for press freedoms in Tunisia is made more forceful by Elliot Abrams, the in-house Middle East putative specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Ghannouchi's finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed. But both methods can be effective in censoring Tunisia's newly free press, so Ghannouchi's failure to support freedom of expression is alarming. Ennahda dominates the new Tunisian government and parliament, so it will be difficult for liberal groups to defend press freedom if the ruling party will not do so.

For the record, the above referenced Rashid Ghannoushi does not play an official role in Tunisia's governing coalition and is no longer even the official held of the dominant party - although he remains influential within and without the party. 

Both the AP and Abrams may be overdoing it. Newspapers and broadcasters should be allowed to published whatever they wish free from state censorship. But state regulation in the name of "decency" is transnational, contingent, and may not be an authoritarian portent.

Let us recall the public outcry over a mili-second of "indecency" at the Superbowl a few years back. That led to a heavier hand at the FCC imposing millions of fines for violations of "decency" and forcing networks to rewrite scripts and adopt 5-minute delays on live programs, and leading to the radio departure of "shock jock" Howard Stern.

The U.S. is not alone. Western European nations, for instance, impose restrictions and fines on language or imagery that recall the Nazis.

The obvious point being that Tunisia, the pioneer in the so-called "Arab Spring", is not a trailblazer when it comes to imposing fines in the name of upholding public morals (albeit in Tunisia's case the fine is trivial as opposed to literally millions in the FCC's handbook). Many nations have limits on free publication and broadcast. Ideally, freedom of the press would be unqualified but in practice societies negotiate boundaries. Thus these restrictions are contingent on public moods liable to change. A few years after the Super-uproar died down the FCC loosened its grip and networks once again are "pushing the boundaries".

These boundaries do not mean a state is necessarily illiberal or it is liable to return to a dictatorship. Of course, if jail time is added to the mix that, then, elevates the concern. But that isn't the case in Tunisia. And neither is the fine meant to cripple the newspaper.

Democracy-in-practice is an interminable process of contested public space and constructed notions of acceptable and unacceptable public speech and imagery. American history (the era of "I Love Lucy" to whatever contemporary awfulness) is a testament to how parameters shift and individuals in a relatively free space are able to remold their societies, contest public space and expand horizons within the context of relative freedom.

My point isn't that Tunisia acted right. As stated, I am for plenary right to publish whatever. But I am making the case that this right isn't established even in the self-styled leaders of the free world and is not a necessary condition for the maintenance of a mostly free society. And that Tunisia's democratic future is similarly not in jeopardy.

Why expect Arab democracy to look any different from the messy reality in the West?

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