The Rocky Road for Freedom of Press in Tunisia

By Op-ed Contributor | Mar 4 2012 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: Attounissia ,Knoxville ,Lena Gercke ,Mosaique fm ,Nasreddine Ben Saida ,

The front page of the February 15th, issue of Tunisian newspaper Attounissia.

By Douja Mamelouk

When I turned on the Tunisian radio station mosaique fm at six o'clock in the morning in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was almost delighted to hear Mr. Nasr Eddine Ben Saida on ˜Midi Show'.  After eight days spent in prison because his newspaper, Attounisiya, published a partially undressed picture of Lena Gercke, Sami Khedira, the Tunisian-German soccer player's girlfriend (some say it's his wife).  The ˜event' caused a judicial and media uproar.  The arrest of Mr. Ben Saida happened on the same day that his online newspaper attounissia ( was due to appear on newsstands in a print format.

Ben Saida, formerly someone-not too many-knew, has become a national hero (and we have several of them these days in post January 14th Tunisia).  Secondly, as a result of this highly publicized censure, I am sure that readership picked up as a result of the arrest related publicity for Attounisia.  I personally never knew Sami Khedira and now, thanks to this unnecessary media scandal, I know the Tunisian-German soccer player, as well as his partner.  To be quite honest, all that has come out of this incident of moral policing is the aggrandizement of mediocrity.  Surely, this incident is calling into question the freedom of press under the new interim government.  It is also encouraging the tabloidization of the press. It is further calling into question where do we draw the lines as far as freedom of speech goes, while taking into consideration our Islam and our Arabness.

The issue at hand is neither a racy photograph of a footballer's wife nor Ben Saida's heroism in publishing it, but the blurry lines surrounding our freedoms in general and our freedom of press in particular.  While I understand that it feels very democratic to have media scoops such as this one, I try not to allow such incidents to blind me to the more important questions in Tunisia today, such as what is happening to all those in the northwest parts of the country who are affected one week by the snow and the following week by the floods.  Yet focusing on the real news and issues becomes a battle in the midst of the reoccurring pseudo-issues making it on the frontline.  I worry that we might start treating the news the same way we did under Ben Ali, which is by not reading the news as we never had real news. Not much discussion has surrounded the catastrophic weather that has hit a small country in a post-revolutionary era, while it timidly acquaints itself with democracy. Was I dreaming when I heard a government employee say we came to power and found a country with very weak infrastructure! So stop blaming us!?

The debates surrounding Ben Saida's arrest and detention for publishing an ˜indecent' (we are yet to determine the definitions of indecency) picture of a soccer player's girlfriend reminded me of the many debates that Egyptian society has known for at least the past three decades.  I wondered if the next trial that we will hear about in Tunisian media will resemble the forced divorce of Egyptian Qu'ran professor and theologian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd by the Lower Personal Status court from his wife Dr. Ibtihal Younis.  The charge was, of course, you guessed it, apostasy, what else would it be?  This happened in Egypt in 1995. Now I'm wondering when will it happen in Tunisia since this is the general direction we are moving toward.  What if the Congress for the Republic (CPR)'s call to change civil marriages into ˜religious' ones goes through?  And if only religious marriages are legal in Tunisia, then what does this mean for the divorce process?  If a religious cleric is our new justice of the peace, then does he now sign divorce papers as well?

All this goes back to Mr. Ben Saida's arrest and bringing freedom of press into question.  So now that we have questioned ˜the press' what is next?  Or is this simply another trial on our new democratic path in Tunisia and we can congratulate ourselves upon Ben Saida's release while he awaits his trial?  After all, the backing that the editor-in-chief received from human rights groups, NGOs and supporters of a free press was an intense rally for his cause.  All of them considered his release a step forward toward the establishment of a democratic government.

In conclusion, a balance has yet to be found in the new free Tunisian media, between expressing oneself freely and not offending the general public.  Perhaps focusing on building a strong informative and educative media should take precedence over using the freedom of press for the purposes of tabloidization of Tunisian newspapers.  Nothing has been gained for me now that I know Sami Khedira and his partner, yet I am still concerned about the people of Bousalem being flooded.

Dr. Douja Mamelouk was born and raised in Tunisia.  She is an Assistant Professor of Arabic and French at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

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    @Douja and Tunisia Live:
    You have been warned. This is the second time you put the picture on this web site, and our fancy prosecutor does not like it. It is called “decency laws..something something!” Remember in Tunisia, we have the unwritten rule..three strikes and you are out.
    Thanks! oh…can you email me the pic in a larger size?

  1. Anyone who expects that this photo is acceptable to an ordinary Tunisian does know know many ordinary Tunisians. Without political preferences, take this picture and ask the Tunisian on the street whether it is acceptable to be on the cover of a newspaper in his country. 9 out of 10 will tell you this is not acceptable, from the left political spectrum to the right.

    • Tunisian islamists like “Farid” keep refering to mysterious opinion polls nobody has ever heard of. It’s beginning to get ridiculous.

      “9 out of 10 Tunisians want Sharia”
      “9 out of 10 Tunisians are for the niqab”
      “9 out of 10 Tunisians are for Ennahada”
      “9 out of 10 Tunisians want to circumcize women”
      “9 out of 10 Tunisians blah blah blah blah blah blah blah!”
      “9 out of 10 Tunisians [insert radical islamist slogan here]”

      Dear islamists, show us the facts instead of making these kind of silly claims. You don’t speak for all Tunisians so please have the decency and respect to present to us the facts and the evidence.

  2. Afif and Ferid–

    Douja had nothing to do with picking the photo for this op-ed. I thought it was an important point of reference for this story because it has been almost three weeks since we last ran the picture.

    Running the cover again is in no way a Tunisia Live endorsement of the original Attounissia decision to publish the photo.

    • @Kouichi!
      I reviewed my comment and read the article again, and now I must say that my comment was totally inappropriate in light of the excellent remarks Ms. Mamlouk has made in her article.
      I was more focused on the issue of freedom of speech and being sacarstic about how the goverment handled the matter than on the questions that Ms. Mamlouk raised, which concern the path the press is taking in post revolution Tunisia. My comment just missed her good points.

      Thank you!