Nassridine Ben Saida, publisher of the newspaper “Attounissia” was released from prison this morning by the Primary Court of Tunis. His trial on charges of violating public decency has been postponed until March 8th.
Ben Saida was arrested on February 15th after publishing a front page photo of Real Madrid Midfielder Sami Khedira in a tuxedo covering the breasts of his nude girlfriend Lena Gercke with his hand.
His case has sparked a national debate in Tunisia about the limits of freedom of expression and how the government should handle cases involving the violation of “moral codes” and professional ethics.
The packed courtroom included several Tunisian journalists attending to show support for their colleague. Well known Tunisian national figures including Constituent Assembly member Salma Baccar and Hamma Hammami, head of the Tunisian Communist Party, as well as human rights activist Radhia Nasraoui and several others also attended the hearing.
Abderaouf Ayedi, cofounder of the political party Congress for the Republic (CPR) (party of Interim President Moncef Marzouki) was among the panel of lawyers representing Attounisia’s Ben Saida. Ayedi stated that the arrest of Ben Saida was arbitrary and discretional. “Article 121 of the Penal Code used by the General Prosecutor to detain those journalists was used by the previous tyrannical regime to oppress journalists,” he explained.
Ayedi said that the passage of Decrees 115 and 116 (laws regulating the media sector in Tunisia) on November 2nd 2011 nullify Tunisia’s old media law,“especially the press code of April 28th 1975 and all the completing amendments.” He argued that Article 79 of the New Press Code, Decree 115 cancelled all previous laws related to regulating media.
Mokhtar Trifi, a renowned Tunisian human rights activist and lawyer, also called the arrest illegitimate and said that the detention occurred due to orders from above. He called the trial a test case for the Tunisian Judicial system currently struggling for independence from executive power.
Last week, The Union of Tunisian Journalists expressed its disappointment over the decision of the preliminary court against the release of Attounisia’s Nasreddine Ben Saida.
After the arrest of Ben Saida, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement demanding his immediate release, they called Ben Saida “the first media executive to be jailed in the post-Ben Ali era.”
RSF expressed their concern with the fact that Tunisian journalists may face a prison sentence for a newspaper article, stating that the threat of imprisonment sends an extremely disturbing signal to all those who defend freedom of expression.
“This is a hypocritical reaction because photos of this kind often appear on the cover of foreign magazines sold in Tunisia,” RSF said.