In a story we have been following closely, a court in Tunisia has has ruled that the head of a private TV station is guilty of disrupting public order and violating moral values for airing Persepolis.
Nabil Karoui defended the airing on freedom of speech grounds, whereas some religious leaders say the animated film say insults Islam. Flying in the face of the Arab Spring, which many hoped would bring new freedoms in the Middle East, the court in Tunis ordered Nabil Karoui to pay a 2,400-dinar (approx. $1,600) fine because his station, Nessma TV, aired the animated film last October 7th. A Nessma technician and another station official were both fined 1,200 dinars.
The case has pitted liberals and defenders of media freedom against hard-line Islamic groups who say that the film, which includes a depiction of God, is sacrilegious. The legal battle has underscored a struggle between secularists and Islamists the North African nation after last year’s overthrow of its longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab Spring uprising.
In its ruling Thursday, the court convicted Karoui of causing “troubles to the public order” and “offense to good morals” but threw out a charge of “offense against a sacred item,” according to defense lawyer Abada Kefi.
Karoui, who was not in court for the judgement, has described his case as a key test for freedom of expression in Tunisia, which remains in flux following the January 2011 revolution that toppled an entrenched dictatorship and sparked the Arab Spring.
In a statement, US Ambassador Gordon Gray said Thursday’s ruling raised “serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression” in the wake of last year’s revolution against toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Reuters reports.
“I am concerned and disappointed by the conviction for Nessma television’s broadcast of an animated film previously approved for distribution by the Tunisian government,” Gray said.
“We understand that Mr. Karoui has the right to appeal his conviction, and we hope this case will be resolved in a manner which guarantees free expression, a basic right denied to Tunisians during the Ben Ali era,” he added.
Several people expressed anger after the announcement of the ruling.
“It’s appalling, 2,400 dinars for somebody who made a mockery of God and offended Muslim feelings,” said one man, who was in tears.
“People mock Allah and pretend that this is freedom of expression,” added a veiled woman outside the courthouse, which was guarded by police.
The trial, which opened in November 2011 and was twice postponed, roused strong feelings pitting those who argued for freedom of expression against violent extremist Muslims.
The Franco-Iranian film is Iranian director Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her graphic novel about growing up during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. It won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.