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 (www.attounissia.com.tn) 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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