Nessma TV: the Tunisians` “Danish cartoon crisis”

It seems that the Arab world finally finally got its “Danish cartoon crisis”.  And it is coming from liberated Tunisia.

Some background: last Friday October 7th the Tunisian channel Nessma TV broadcasted  “Persepolis”, a cartoon movie by well known French-Iranian illustrator Marjane Satrapi. The movie contains a scene where God is depicted, something that is largely rejected amongst Sunni Muslims (whereas in Shiia-majority Iran this would widely accepted, as Yves Gonzales-Quijano points out in his blog).

Nessma TV `s decision to broadcast a movie that was already supposed to be controversial on paper was questioned on Facebook days before the actual broadcast happened, as pointed out here:


“When Nessma’s plan to broadcast Persepolis became known, comments began to appear on Facebook denouncing Nessma and calling for protesters to march on the station’s headquarters on October 9. Police were at the building that morning. They prevented most of the protesters from reaching the building and made some arrests”.

 Mehdi M’ribah -who was preparing an article for  Nawaat.org discussing the Facebook polemics revolving around “Persepolis”- also remarks that the heated debate started on the social network before the actual broadcast of the movie. Had it not been dubbed into Tunisian dialect (classical Arabic or “fusha” is the official language of Tunisia but Tunisian “3ammiah” is the daily language and the one which goes directly to the hearth of the people) it wouldn`t probably have generated such a controversy. M`ribah stresses that the film had gone “unnoticed for the majority of Tunisians when it was released”, most probably because it was in fusha. The linguistic argument is also remarked by the above mentioned article of Yves Gonzales-Quijano.

So, the premises for an heated debate, probably turning into something even more complicated, were already there. Despite this, and despite the very delicate political moment (elections happening on October 23rd), Nessma TV  broadcasted the movie October 7th.

In response to that, on October 9th a group of people that has widely been labelled as “islamists” or “salafists” by the international press -like the majority of French press and even the BBC– gathered in front of the TV station to protest.

“Three hundred people attacked our offices and tried to set fire to them,” Nessma TV chairman Nebil Karoui told AFP.

After this episode, Nessma TV has become the favorite topic of discussion amongst many international news outlets and, unfortunately, amongst many Tunisians,too, as Sophie-Alexandra Aiachi has noted in her article on Nawaat.

A group of people, which includes 131 lawyers, has been reported to have filed a complaint against Nessma TV and its director Nebil Karoui.

“The press code says in articles 44 and 48 that a person found guilty of inciting hatred among religions or insulting a religion can be sentenced to prison. Penal code article 226bissays that a person found guilty of undermining public morals by “intentionally disturbing other persons in a way that offends the sense of public decency” can be sentenced to prison”.

As a response, Human Rights Watch and many international media have raised up and asked  Tunisia`s  interim authorities to “respect free expression and approve pending amendments to abolish the “defaming of religion” law”.

The verbal fights continue whilst today other anti-Nessma protests were held in central Tunis. Blogger Malek Khadhraoui remarked on Twitter that “the demonstration has passed by my office, the non-veiled women and non-bearded men are by far more than the bearded and the veiled” (original tweet in French). Tunisia-Live also reports that, according to residents, the protesters were ordinary youth who felt that their religion had been offended whilst the police decided to react by throwing tear-gas and even rubber bullets against them.

While the Nessma TV affairs continues and the election day approaches, I feel that few remarks have to be made.

First of all, the Islamist party Ennahda -which is reported to be at pole position in the electoral competition- has officially condemned the use of violence against Nessma through the words of  Noureddine El Bhiri, Head of the Political Office of Ennahda, interviewed by Tunisia Live.

“On the other hand, Mr. Bhiri stated clearly that Ennahda does not encourage violence against Nessma and considered the attack attempt against the channel “unacceptable.” “We are completely against the use of violence for any reason, and we don’t see violence as the solution for any sort any sort of issue,” commented Bhiri”.

At the same time, Bihri points out something that should be investigated further by international and Tunisian journalists. Apparently, there are electoral campaign rules set by the Inependent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE) that ban political advertisement. According to Bhri, broadcasting such a movie was a political move in an attempt to undermine Islamic religion and, consequently, the Ennhada party.

I am not enough aware of Tunisian laws to judge if Bihri`s statement is correct or not, but I think Tunisians should do this work and investigate more.

More generally, whether if what Nessma TV has done is formally against the law or not, this is not the core issue, because what the station has done is surely against the rules of respect and good taste. In such a delicate period for the country, why raising such a useless polemic? Why not focusing on real issues instead of using a movie -which is so far away from Tunisia and its situation- to hurt the religious feelings of Tunisians right now?

Why are we supposed to read such a gratuitous provocation as freedom of expression? Freedom of expression is not an abstract concept and does not exist in absolute terms. It should be framed in a context of ethics and respect. This is exactly what happened with the Danish cartoon crisis. Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was claiming the right to publish whatever in the name of absolute freedom of expression but, in doing so, it was hurting the religious feelings of millions of Muslims.

It was a bad idea to broadcast that movie on that evening, in this historical moment. Provocation does not mean freedom.

We as European should note salute everything that comes in the name of “freedom of expression” as a good thing. W as European should not just judge “secularism” or “laicite`” as an absolute concept and absolutely beneficial for every society.

I invite everybody who reads French to have a look at this very interesting paper by one of the most active Tunisian blogger and lawyer, “Astrubal de Tunisie”.

His article  “L`Islam religion d`Etat, disposition constitutionnelle garante du processus seculariste de la democratie tunisienne” is enlightening.

Although, as he points out very well in the introduction, it becomes very difficult in another language rather than French to make the distinction between “laicite`” and “secularism”, I`ll try to translate a few sentences. Like the following, which refers to Western democracies like Greece, Denmark or Finland that have succeeded in achieving a secularization process without forcing any kind of “laicite`” a`la francaise.

“Furthermore, we are not talking about laic countries, in the French meaning of the term,  but, without doubt, about nations that have achieved a high degree of secularization of their institutions. In other terms, recognizing a religious foundation of the State did not represent an obstacle to the separation of civic power from the influence of religion”.

In other terms: why four of the “most democratic countries” of the world (Democracy Index 2010) -Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden- declare officially to have State religion and can still be considered “democratic”, whereas the same cannot happen in the case of Tunisia, or any other Non-Western country?

Why should we provoke the anger of people by offending their religion and insinuating that the fact to be religious and respect religion can eventually lead to obscurantism?

And why should we do this only few days before the elections, just to show Western powers that the “Islamic threat” is there, still alive?

And why don`t  you recall to your memory the protests that happened in the “civilized” Western world when “Passion” of Mel Gibson was out in theaters  or, even before, when “The Last Temptation of Christ” was screened in a cinema in Paris -that very same France obsessed by “laicite”- and 13 people were injured?

I am a staunch secularist and I cannot believe that offending Christianity should be condemned whereas offending Islam can be ok if done in the name of “laicite”.

Plus, to be honest, Martin Scorsese is by far better than Marjane Satrapi.

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2 thoughts on “Nessma TV: the Tunisians` “Danish cartoon crisis”

  1. I agree with your analysis (or compilation of other’s) about nessma’s suspiscious motivations, bad timing etc…

    However, as a Tunisian, I felt quite offended by some stuff written above:

    1. Those laws you are referring to are the same that Ben Ali used to muzzle Tunisians. How could you even bring them here?

    2. Ben Ali’s rule has left a huge cultural vaccum in this country. We are desperate for a cultural resurgence and many are fighting the uniform way of thinking 23 years of mediocracy led to. Ever heard of fascism? In Tunisia we call it “Mauve” or “RCD” thinking.

    3. You seem to agree with the fact that Persepolis is offensive to Islam. It merely depicts a little girl’s image of god, you know. And islamic rules can be interpreted in so many ways. That’s what we call “ijtihad” i.e. using your good sense, experience, brains, before making a judgement. You mistakingly chose to explain (even sympathize) with one single view of the affair, the most shallow and strict one. Isn’t that insulting towards Islam?

    4. I find western media as irritating as you. I also find it rather patronizing when a westerner, who is familiar with the Arab world, cannot just aknowledge for one moment- even if he/she LOVES arabs- that yes, some arabs are stupid and/or can be easily manipulated! Just like anywhere else on earth, you know!

    5. The fact that christian and jewish extremists attacked Mel Gibson’s film cannot be seriously considered as an excuse for muslims to react in the same way!!

    6. You say “I am a staunch secularist and I cannot believe that offending Christianity should be condemned whereas offending Islam can be ok if done in the name of “laicite”.

    Again, who are you, and who are they to judge that the cartoon is an offence to Islam? Do you know, that among other habits, we still say “Yehudi kalb” i.e. “dog of a jew”, or “yehudi hachek” i.e. “a jew, god forbid”? Isn’t this offensive? Isn’t it just sheer ignorance? Yet, no one thinks twice before saying it. So let’s just stop comparing, ok?

    Thank you anyway for digging into the matter. I must say though that if people really cared about us Tunisians, they should maybe stop think about us as “special”, like people with “special needs”. We are who we are, sometimes brave, bright, daring, and other times, silly, stupid, or simply can’t be bothered. Just like you, on the other side of the mediterranean.

    • Hi there, thanks for your comments, very interesting. I`d like to reply to your points though.
      1. Concerning the law: as I said in the post, I think it`s up to Tunisians to investigate this. I dont know Tunisian law enough, but I suspect that these are pre-Ben Ali laws. In any case, you would be surprised but in many “democratic” countries offending religion is sanctioned by law.
      2. Concerning fascist: are you kidding me? have I ever heard about fascism? Dude, I`m Italian! I think we invented fascism:)
      3. I think Persepolis is not at the core of the issue. In my view, “Persepolis” is an harmless film and a mediocre one, too. Doesnt deserve all this attention. The core of the issue is: why provoking people few days before the elections? why raising anger? why offending religion? as I said, we are free to do things but there is also something called ethics, respect, and opportunity to do something in a determined moment. This was just not the good moment to do this. You must ask yourself another question: a channel which is run by well trained and French-raised advertisers, and partially controlled by my lovely Prime Minister -who is, let me tell you as an Italian, a genius when it comes to orienting politics through entertainment- doesn`t do anything “by chance”.
      4. Might be patronizing, you are right. But that`s the why I think:)
      5. True. But I also consider irritating the fact that when Christianity of Judaism are offended, we all raise up in “Christian” Europe. Why when it comes to Muslisms it should be different? This does not , of course, justify violence. But I wasnt there and I am not in the position to state whether the people protesting are Salafists or Islamists and if those demonstrations were excercising violence or just expressing anger.
      6. As I said, I just think it is a matter of “opportunity” to do something in a certain moment. It was not the right moment to broadcast that movie, at least in my view. Provocation does not mean freedom of expression. Same thing happened with the Danish cartoons: they were free to do it, but why doing it?Had they really to do it?
      We really miss the point here. We should discuss other, more important issues, in Tunisia and in everywhere.
      And sorry, I`m not treating you as people with “special needs”. I`m just passionate about the issues. I wish you guys wrote something on us, Italians, cause we are people with special needs indeed. And we have lots of shared problems, which would be great to see turned into shared solutions.
      Thanks a lot for your comments and hope to meet you in Tunisia.

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