(Tunis) – Tunisia’s interim government should drop its criminal investigation of a TV station for “defaming” Islam over the airing of a controversial film, Human Rights Watch said today. The interim authorities should respect free expression and approve pending amendments to abolish the “defaming of religion” law, Human Rights Watch said.
More than 200 protesters marched on the Tunis headquarters of Nessma TV on October 9, 2011, after the nationwide channel, on October 7, aired the animated feature film Persepolis, dubbed into the Tunisian dialect of Arabic. The film is about a girl’s coming of age in the Islamic Republic of Iran and in European exile. On October 11, after receiving a complaint, the state prosecutor announced that Nessma would be investigated on charges of “defaming” Islam.
“Nessma’s owners have every right to air this serious and provocative film,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should be defending that right, just as it should defend the right of Tunisians to protest peacefully against Nessma.”
Persepolisis a semi-autobiographical film based on the best-selling graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi depicting her childhood up to her early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution.Itincludes a scene in which the girl imagines a conversation with God, who is represented as a white-bearded man. Many Muslims consider pictorial depictions of God to be prohibited.
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.
An Interior Ministry official was quoted in the media as saying that the protesters were carrying armes blanches, meaning knives and possibly bars and sticks. The ministry spokesman Hichem Meddeb, in an interview with the state TV channel Al Wataniyya, said the arrests were made after demonstrators threw rocks in the streets nearby the station’s office.
Nebil Karoui, the director of Nessma, told Human Rights Watch, “We have also received threats through Facebook pages and by email,” for airing Persepolis.
The complaint about the showing of the film was signed by 144 people, including 131 lawyers. Two days after receiving it, the office of the prosecutor at the Court of First degree of Tunis announced that it would open a criminal investigation. The complaint sought charges against Nessma’s director and others under the press code and the penal code. 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 226bis says 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.
While government officials acted swiftly to protect the Nessma offices, some officials criticized Nessma’s decision to air the film without also affirming its right to do so. Meddeb, the Interior ministry spokesman, said on Al Wataniyya television that there should be a special attention and respect for the feelings of the Tunisian people related to religion.
Similarly, the Religious Affairs Ministry issued a communiqué expressing concern over the fallout from airing a movie that “personifies the holy lofty God” and calling on the media to respect “the beliefs and religious sanctities and the necessity of commitment to the principles of social peace.”
On September 23, Tunisia’s ad hoc advisory body, the High Commission for the Protection of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, approved a draft code for the news media that eliminates the offense of defamation of religion and of religious groups, as well as many other articles that violate the right to freedom of expression. However, the interim government has yet to promulgate this new code, while the penal code, which also contains provisions penalizing defamation of religion and other articles infringing on freedom of expression, has not been revised.
“The criminal investigation of Nessma TV for airing Persepolis provides yet one more example of why rewriting Tunisia’s laws to protect rights instead of repress them remains a priority in the post-Ben Ali era,” Whitson said.
Laws that criminalize the “defamation” of religion or religious groups are not compatible with norms of freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Tunisia has ratified, stated that it is not permissible for “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws … to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”
Since the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, there have been other attacks on artistic expression by groups claiming to act under the banner of protecting Islam. On September 26, protesters forced their way into the Afrikart Cinema in downtown Tunis to protest its screening of Secularism, If God Wills, a film about atheism shown as part of a cultural evening.
In a previous act of violence possibly linked to expression deemed “un-Islamic,” on April 18, in Tunis, an unknown assailant struck the film director Nouri Bouzid on the head with a metal bar, shortly after he gave an interview on a Tunisian radio station in which he called for a secular constitution for Tunisia and explained that his forthcoming film defended civil liberties and criticized religious fundamentalism.