On March 28, Jabeur Mejri, a Tunisian man convicted of upsetting public order and morals, was sentenced to seven years in jail after posting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook. Last week, he learned that the court would not overturn his sentence. This decision comes just two weeks after Salafi Islamists violently protested an art exhibition they found insulting. Though many hoped that the restrictions on free speech and expression prevalent under President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali would ease after he fled the country in Janurary 2011, it seems as though the current government has simply chosen an alternative means of restriction.
The tight limits on speech and expression in Tunisia stem in part from the country’s constitution. Article 8 allows for freedom of opinion, expression, the press, assembly, and association within the boundaries defined by law. It also states that “[n]o political party may take religion, language, race, sex or region as the foundation for its principles, objectives, activity or programs.” Under Ben Ali, the penal and press codes criminalized speech offenses that included defamation and spreading information that was thought to harm public order and morals. These codes were primarily used to silence those that would speak out against Ben Ali’s government. After Ben Ali’s resignation, a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, took control of the government. Instead of criminalizing speech that reflects poorly on the government, they have criminalized speech that reflects poorly on Islam.
Jabeur Mejri’s failed appeal is one of many hits freedom of expression has taken in post-revolutionary Tunisia. In May, Nabil Karoui, the director of Tunisia’s Nessma television channel, was convicted of disturbing public order, and fined $1600, for airing the animated film version of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis. In the wake of that decision, censorship of artistic works has ranged from the seizure of “blasphemous” books, to the removal of controversial artwork from an exhibition. As conservative Islamists continue calling for religion to play a bigger role in government policies, artists and activists in Tunisia also struggle to ensure that the tenets laid forth in their constitution are upheld, and that their voices are not silenced.
Soyini A. Hamit is a comic fan and writer masquerading as a laboratory technologist. You can follow her fascination with language and music at soyinianika.com.