Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tunisia: Press Freedom Tested in Tunisian Courts

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Two trials in Tunisia this week raised grave questions about the judiciary’s role in defining and restricting press freedom.

In one case, Nasreddine Ben Saïda, managing director of the daily Attounisia, was in court on February 23 after he was charged with public order and decency offences because his newspaper had published a picture showing Sami Khedira, a German footballer of Tunisian origin, embracing a naked woman.

Ben Saïda, Attounisia’s chief editor Habib Guizani and editor Mohamed Hedi Hidhri were arrested by Tunisian police on February 15. Guizani and Hidhri were released the following day, but Ben Saïda was detained until the February 23 hearing, when the judge released him on bail pending a trial set for March 8.

If convicted, Ben Saïda could face a prison term of between six months and five years and a fine ranging from 120 to 1,200 dinars (80 - 800 US dollars).

Lotfi Mejri, a lawyer at the Court of Tunis, describes the Attounisia case as “a political case par excellence”.

Mejri argues that the judge could have issued a final ruling on the day of the hearing, but decided instead to postpone the case either to await a decision from higher authorities in the justice ministry, or else to defuse the concerns raised by those opposed to Ben Saïda’s release.

A Tunisian media freedom activist, who asked not to be named, said, “Such trials should not have taken place in Tunisia during the process of transition to democracy.”

Defence lawyers in the Attounisia case are questioning why the matter ever went to court at all.

The charges were brought under Tunisia’s criminal code, even though the lawyers say a new press law issued in November 2011 supersedes it, because it abolishes criminal charges for journalistic activity. Article 2 of the press code states that all previous legislative provisions that contradict it become null and void.

In the other case heard this week, on February 22, Tunisia’s Supreme Court overturned an earlier court judgment and subsequent appeal ruling that ordered censorship of a number of websites on the grounds they contained pornographic material.

The case now goes back to the Court of Appeal in Tunis, where the plaintiff, the state Tunisian Internet Agency, will have an opportunity to put its case again.

In terms of judging political attitudes towards freedom of the press, the two cases offer mixed conclusions. But from a legal standpoint, they add a hostile note to the already tense relationship between state and media.

Ibtissem Jouini is a journalist working with IWPR’s Tunisia Programme.

This article was produced under IWPR’s Tunisian Programme, which aims to support the role of traditional and new media in the transition to democracy by developing journalists’ skills, improving media coverage, and engagement in debate.