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 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.

Wadah Khanfar`s Al Jazeera at TED: “The future has arrived in the Arab world..and it is now”

Few days ago Wadah Khanfar, general manager of Al Jazeera network, flew to TED conference and give this talk which I would like to share here.

The enthusiasm he delivers in the talk is the enthusiasm of all of us that have been witnessing, particularly after 9/11, an escalation of violence, war, foreign invasions in the Arab region and now can finally welcome -for the first time-a  change which is not coming from outside.

He speaks about a “a new generation, educated, well-connected.. that has taught us new ways to express our feelings”.He points out at he failure of the old generation (and the old regimes, and the West that has been supporting them for decades) in understanding what this generation wants and dreams about. He wisely invites the West not to think about the Arab world “as oil only”.

Rather, it should think at this youth as a new resource, as “an opportunity to see stability, security and democracy”  coming from within the Region.

When he talks about  the fact that Al Jazeera has been banned from operating in Tunisia for a while (and Egypt also has been trying many times either to shut the Cairo office down or to jam the channel TV signal) he says something very important. Prevented from working there, (Al Jazeera)

” we found that these people in the street were our reporters”. People that are armed with light cameras, mobiles, Facebook and Twitter accounts, You Tube uploads.

I remember very clearly many years Mohamed Nanahbay, now head of Online at Al jazeera English, talking at a panel where somebody asked why Al Jazeera was investing so much in new media, by giving people light cameras and mobiles to film. Nanahbay smiled and said: “we are training our future reporters! This youth at some point will go down in the streets filmming and writing and they will remember of us. They will remember that we have opened a channel for them”.

Well, I think that now this long-term strategy has finally paid back. And Khanfar,  himself young (he`s 43 and already director general of the whole Al Jazeera network), has won over  the prestigious TED conference`s audience and Chris Anderson and maybe many US viewers..

Later today Hillary Clinton declared that” Al Jazeera is gaining more prominence in the U.S. because it offers “real news”–something she said American media were falling far short of doing”.

Definitely a different scenario from the 10 years ago “terrorist station”..

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The secret of Al Jazeera`s success: dealing with Arabs as people, not as numbers

picture by Evanchill

Yesterday Wadah Khanfar, general manager of Al Jazeera network, wrote an interesting piece: “At Al Jazeera, we saw the Arab revolutions coming. Why didn`t the West?”.

“Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognize the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality. Quantcast U.S. and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world – the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying center – that is shaping the future of the region” Khanfar says.

I cannot but agree with him. Few days ago, in my post “Tripoli, una gita di mille anni fa” (in Italian), I was discussing the same issue, the blindness of the West, particularly Europe and my own country, Italy (which enjoyed in the past a great deal of soft power in the Region and a cultural proximity with Arabs that maybe only Spain and Greece have among EU countries). We had a great opportunity which was the Euro-Mediterreanean framework and we wasted it, doing partnerships with the wrong people, “supporters of the Arab regimes” as Wadah cleverly points out. We saw the rising influence of social networks and some of us, mostly academic researchers with no real influence on institutional policies, spent years and years trying to convince EU institutions that those were the right folks to discuss with, the young blood of the new Arab generation. But sine we are ourselves “too young” (at least for EU parameters) nobody paid too much attention to our words, taking us as “kids” playing with the latest technology tool.

The same happened much longer before with TV stations. I remember when I first visited Al Jazeera, back in 2000, and then started to write articles and a book about the channel. It took years and years of work and public talks to have the EU elites starting to take this station “seriously” and not being just scared by it.

Today, 10 years  after 9/11, the situation has completely changed. Al Jazeera has been in touch with “the street” as Wadah points out, and was able to catch up with the changing going on in the Region. Al Jazeera is a young station. Khanfar himself is young and was able to build up a team of youngsters in the New Media Department that is super-professional. People like Mohamed Nanahbay and Mooed Ahmad, with their teams at Al Jazeera Arabic and English, have been working since 2006 to build what Al Jazeera achieves today.

We can criticize the channel`s editorial policy, disagree with some of its programmes, dislike its “incendiary” style, but we cannot deny the professional way the channel has been building relations with the people during the years. That`s it: Al Jazeera has not dealt with Arabs as audiences, but as its “people”. It has empowered them to express their opinions, send their messages, join online forum and chats, post videos, build the new brand identity of the channel all together.

People, mostly in the West, are surprised of the channel popular success during the last Egyptian uprising and now with Libya. There`s nothing to be surprised about pictures like the one Evanchill has published. People feel proximity with Al Jazeera, and new media has played a big role in this. And the way Al Jazeera has been using new media since 2006 is incredibly clever and professional. I wouldt be surprised at all: I would call this “investment”.

Al Jazeera has invested in new media since 2006 and this success is just the result of a professional work done during years and years. As much as 9/11 coverage in Afghanistan was the result of an investment done since the beginning of the channel, in 1996, by building a network of contacts and opening offices in crisis zones.

9/11 coverage didnt come out of the blue. It was just the result of an investment.

The idea of “investing” in something was once very close to Western mentality. It seems that now, mostly in the EU, this is gone. And none of the Arabic language stations that we have in Europe has ever thought of building a relation with its Arab audiences and dealing with them as people, not as numbers.

Al Jazeera did, and that`s the secret of its successful coverage of the Arab uprisings. It did it so well that this was helpful to reach out to Western audiences too.

There was -and there still is- a big campaign in the US, appeared also on Twitter and called #DemandAlJazeera. The channel New media team is organizing meet-ups all over America, and many articles are  being published everywhere in the US to demand the availability of the channel via cable.

And this might be Al Jazeera`s latest success: few days ago it was publicly announced that the channel is in talks with Comcast, the largest US cable distributor.

Al Jazeera adds Egyptian & Tunisian footage to the Creative Commons repository

Al Jazeera has just started updating the Creative Commons Al Jazeera repository which the channel created in early 2009 during the Gaza crisis. The Al Jazeera New Media team is working to update the repository with daily packages of footage coming from Egypt and Tunisia uprisings.

Having chosen the most “lenient” Creative Commons license, CC BY, Al Jazeera is  allowing anybody to take, copy, share, translate, remix, and even re-broadcast the footage for free under the only condition of attributing the original source.

This is a key move towards the circulation of information particularly during crisis, like the one currently happening in Egypt. Wired has commented the move here.

Today the Egyptian Ministry of Information prevented both Al Jazeera Arabic and English from operating within the country but the live coverage of the Egypt uprising continued thanks to mobile phones live coverage.

Since the beginning of the demonstrations, Al Jazeera Arabic and English have been covering Egypt extensively both through traditional broadcast and with an impressive online coverage on all the major social networks.

Egypt`s day of anger is Al Jazeera day, too

I have been watching Egypt`s “day of anger” today on many TV channels, English and Arabic: BBC Arabic, BBC World, Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera Arabic and English, CNN. I must admit that this time Al Jazeera English did really a great job, particularly their correspondent from Cairo Ayman Mohyeldin. Al Jazeera English live feed on the Internet has been providing constant live coverage today, even during the worst moments of Friday the 28th of January, when the police was  attacking Al Jazeera`s Cairo office and trying to stop the live broadcast. Al Jazeera Arabic and English also started tonight to release some of their Egyptian footage under a Creative Commons license, something which has been very warmly welcomed by Internet users that are in constant need of footage in these crisis situations.

On the contrary, Al Arabyia was quite “low profile” today and they even reported the totally random news that Internet had been shut down by Syrian authorities in Syria. The news is totally false, as I have been live tweeting from Syria during all Friday, as many other Syrian tweeps. Internet was very fast today  in Syria, as far as I can tell. It has never been so fast in the country since I am here, as much as it has never been raining like tonight and Damascus has never looked so quiet and gloomy as it was tonight.

picture by Paul Keller

End of the regime in Tunisia is also the end of Cactus Prod?

While Ben Ali`s regime is over, another family business seems to be collapsing, the media one.  And it is not that of state-owned channel TV Tunis7 -which was always and very clearly the mouthpiece of the regime- but that which is the real money-maker, i.e Cactus Prod, the giant media production company founded in 2002 by Belhassen Trabelsi, the former first lady`s brother.

Blog portal Nawaat has dealt with the issue of the power that Cactus Prod used to have over the state-owned TV which used to commission all its prime time cash&audience-making shows to the Trabelsi`s company, turning it into the real monopolist of Tunisian media.

Now, as a consequence of the fall of Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi`s regime, it seems that the company`s bank accounts have been frozen. Sami Fehri, a very famous TV presenter who co-owns the company at 50% with Trabelsi, is reported to have publicly declared that he was forced by Belhassen to enter in a business partnership with him.

The news has not been verified yet but, in any case, it is helpful to show us another very important side of the former “neo-liberal” regime, i.e. that every new business brought up to the country by the so called globalisation and neo-liberal era was at the benefit of a closed elite circle, pretty much that of the ruling family relatives and friends. Another evidence that the liberalization benefits were in the hands of few selected people while a mirage for the majority of the Tunisians, as well as for many other Arabs who in other countries of the Region do share the same situation.

A new (Maghreb) female touch in Berlusconi`s Nessma TV

Mamnou` al-rijal (Forbidden to men) is a fascinating title for a new TV show. Especially if it`s for a women`s programme.

Fashion, beauty, glamour, interior design, jewellery, “cool” housekeeping: these are the issues that the new and modern North African woman should take care of, according to Tunis-based Nessma TV who launched the show on Dec, 14.A short promo is available on the channel home page, featuring the charming host Kaoutar Boudarajja dressed in a sexy outfit and promoting the show with a mix of North African Arabic and French.

Kaoutar will be not alone in hosting the first show ever which addresses to “the world of contemporary Maghreb women” as Nessma TV director Nabil Karoui has declared. She will be joined by other four anchorwomen from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria “who will invite in each episode art and media celebrities to discuss questions of particular interest and concern to women of the Maghreb”.

Karoui has stressed the fact that Mamnou` al-rijal will “focus on the rosy and positive side of Maghreb women, because the street is full of negative aspects”

Not going so far in time, in August 2009, that`s exactly what Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Prime Minister and one of the owner of Nessma TV, had declared during his exclusive interview with the station in the occasion of its launch. A “moderate” TV station, appealing to the “Greater Maghreb” with light entertainment, lifestyle programmes, talk shows. Berlusconi invented Italian commercial TV in late 70s winning over an audiences once “under exclusive public TV monopoly” , so he knows very well what he is talking about. One of the host of the exclusive interview at the time asked him if “Nessma TV can change Maghreb just as you changed Italy”. Well, after slightly more than one year of broadcast I can`t say if Maghreb has been changed by Nessma, but certainly  Nessma has been stick to its original mission.

The style of its programmes, the language it is using (a “chic” mixture of French and North African Arabic), the faces who have become its testimonials -like Kaoutar herself who is also hosting the shows Ness Nessma and the Maghreb version of  Berlusconi`s Canale 5″Non solo moda“- are all working towards this idea of globalised, trendy and consuming-friendly “moderated” audience.

It is very hard to say that this is just television, at least when the partners involved in the business are people like Berlusconi, Franco-Tunisian media mogul Tarek Ben Ammar and (indirectly) Lybian leader Qaddafi – his controlled company Lafitrade got a share in Ben Ammar`s Quinta Communication since June 2009– .

The story is worthy to follow. Especially since it seems that next year Lybia will have a more tangible presence on Nessma TV screens -and notably on Mamnou` al-rijal which should be starting reaching out to Lybian women more directly- . According to Lybian journalist Reem Kadouri, Nessma TV seems to enjoy high viewership in the country so far.