A surge of applause rises in the crowded main hall of the Tunis Grand Hotel. The audience has been waiting impatiently for this evening. BBC veteran Tim Sebastian welcomes his guests to the New Arab Debates, which he launched in 2011 in response to the uprisings in the Arab world.
"I'm glad to be back in Tunis," says the British journalist. "Everyone has an opinion, everyone wants to express this opinion — and everyone has the opportunity to do this."
Sebastian has seen firsthand how this opportunity can be limited in Tunisia after the revolution. During the recording of the New Arab Debates in May 2012, two plain-clothed police officers entered the studio and removed the audience list during the program recording. After massive criticism from the public, this year the show went on without any intervention by security forces.
"The battle for freedom of expression in Tunisia has just begun. It won’t be ... easy," said Sebastian.
TV presenter Belloumi Hamza and his colleagues face this battle every day. "Freedom of expression is the greatest gain of the revolution, especially for journalists," says Belloumi, whose talk show Ness Nessma is one of the most important political discussion forums in the new Tunisia. "In traditional media, as well as in blogs and social networks, we have more freedom than ever before in Tunisian history," he says. "The problem is that no legal framework to protect this new freedom has been established so far."
Sensitive topics and new red lines
Ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali managed to make a huge propaganda machine out of the Tunisia press, although the constitution of 1959 guaranteed freedom of expression. Beginning in the 1980s, a growing number of "red lines" limited the freedom of journalists. Such allegations as creating a threat to internal security, disrupting public order or insulting dignitaries could lead not only to the end of a career in journalism, but also to draconian punishments. The new government is working to reform the press law, but progress has been slow. In 2013, Tunisia ranked 138th in press freedom in the annual list by Reporters Without Borders, behind countries such as Libya, Mali and Afghanistan.
Even after the revolution, free reporting in Tunisia remains difficult.
"When it comes to religion, we need to be particularly sensitive," said Belloumi. "Caricatures of the Prophet or the violation of religious feelings are the new red lines." Last year, Belloumi's employer, Nabil Karoui, the head of Nessma TV, crossed such a line. When he broadcasted the animated film Persepolis, Tunisian Salafists reacted with anger. The problem? The movie includes a scene featuring God, whose depiction is prohibited in Islam. Karoui received threatening letters and was fined in May 2012 by a Tunisian court for “infringing sacred values,” “infringing morals” and “disrupting public order.”
Freedom of expression in Tunisia is not limited to being careful about religious feelings. For example, criticism of the Ennahdha party provokes the country's Islamists. In February 2013 alone, more than 50 cases of attacks on journalists and countless threats were registered, often targeting journalists critical of the Islamist party.
"This is worrying," said Racha Haffar, journalist with the online magazine Tunisia Live, but she refuses to feel intimidated by the Islamists. "No one keeps me from writing facts."
For Haffar, freedom of expression is not the only thing threatened in this climate of fear. "In Tunisia, defamation still falls under criminal law. The government tries to use this to its advantage." When a journalist criticizes a member of the government in public, very often facing a lawsuit is just a matter of time."
"You can go to prison for up to two years, just because you tell or write the truth," says Haffar. In a recent study, the organization Human Rights Watch also criticized this practice, which massively restricts press freedom in Tunisia.
A prominent example is the blogger and journalist Olfa Riahi. With her revelations about the misuse of public funds for private hotel stays, Riahi brought down Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem in January but then had to appear in court herself. The accusation? Defamation of a member of the government. The case, known locally as “Sheraton Gate,” is the first major scandal in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Many Tunisian journalists and bloggers think that Ennahdha wants to make an example of Riahi.
Haffar remains confident. "In Tunisia, there are new blogs emerging every day. Civic journalism is growing very fast; many young people want to become journalists. We have waited so long for our freedom, and we won’t allow anyone to take this away from us again."
Katharina Pfannkuch is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She contributes regularly to the German newspapers Die Zeit, Die Welt and SPIEGEL ONLINE. In her work, she focuses on social and cultural developments in Arab societies. In 2011, she graduated with a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies with a focus on modern Islamic law from the University of Leipzig, Germany.
[Editor’s note: There was no involvement by the Ennahda party in the 2012 New Arab Debates and no attempt by them to influence the makeup of the audience. An earlier version of this article stated that there had been.]