March 11, 2012

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

Tunisia is everyone’s favorite Arab country nowadays, the one where the Arab Spring started and that has the best chance to “make it” to democracy. So it would be especially disturbing if Tunisia, and its supposedly moderate Islamist government, led by the Ennahda party, went off track. If Tunisia and Ennahda cannot maintain freedom of expression, which Arab country can?

Yet several prosecutions in Tunisia show that old habits die hard. The blasphemy trial of Nabil Karoui, owner of Nessma Television, commenced on Jan. 23. For broadcasting the French animated movie “Persepolis” last October, Karoui was charged with “disturbing public order” and “violating sacred values” because, as the New York Times reported, this film about a young girl growing up in Iran contains “a scene in which she rails at God. He is depicted as she imagines him, violating an Islamic injunction against personifying him.”

If convicted, Karoui could face five years in prison. The trial has been postponed to April, but jail time is not the only threat Karoui faces. Gangs, presumably of angry Tunisian Salafists, have attacked his house and tried to set Nessma’s offices on fire.

Meanwhile, the publisher of the newspaper Attounisia was jailed when it republished a photo that appeared in the German edition of GQ magazine. Attounisia was an online newspaper for five years under the Ben Ali dictatorship and started a print edition only a few months ago. The offending photo showed a famous Tunisian footballer, Real Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira, using his arm to cover the breasts of his nude girlfriend, a fashion model. The publisher, Nassridine Ben Saida, declared a hunger strike and was released after eight days in prison but at his trial last week was fined for “an affront to public decency.”

Ennahda, the party that leads the coalition government, has condemned the use of violence against journalists. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, issued a statement saying he opposed the imprisonment of Ben Saida. But he added that he would have punished the newspaper company for publishing the photo. With Ghannouchi saying he is against the jailing, Tunisia’s minister of human rights on the record against it and many of Tunisia’s top lawyers defending Ben Saida, many wonder how Ben Saida ended up behind bars — but he did. For the first time since the Ben Ali dictatorship was overthrown, a journalist was jailed, and it is not clear what will happen at Karoui’s blasphemy trial.

Ghannouchi’s finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed. But both methods can be effective in censoring Tunisia’s newly free press, so Ghannouchi’s failure to support freedom of expression is alarming. Ennahda dominates the new Tunisian government and parliament, so it will be difficult for liberal groups to defend press freedom if the ruling party will not do so.

That makes it all the more important that the United States and other democratic countries speak up now for freedom of expression in Tunisia. Human rights groups have spoken out; Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Tunisia’s new president that detailed various ways other journalists and publications were being pressured.

But the U.S. government has been silent. Tunisian liberals say that the U.S. Embassy in Tunis is unengaged with their efforts to make sure the Tunisian model remains one of expanding freedom. The State Department and the White House have said nothing about these incidents.

While visiting Tunisia last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We think Tunisia is proceeding in the right direction based on what we’re seeing, but we will continue to have a dialogue that raises questions as they arise.” But she did not discuss the problems that have already arisen or criticize limits on freedom of the press. “I come with a very specific and committed statement of support about the political and economic reforms that are occurring here,” she said after meeting with Tunisia’s president. “The political side of the revolution is going quite well. I am a very strong champion for Tunisian democracy and what has been accomplished here. . . .The challenge is how to ensure the economic development of Tunisia matches the political development.”

Not quite: The challenge is also to ensure that political development in Tunisia is not blunted and that “democracy” does not become a cover under which the dominant Islamist party limits political freedom. Cheerleading has its place. In many ways Tunisia is indeed far ahead of other Arab countries on the path to a system protecting democracy and human rights. But we need to do more precisely because the Tunisian experiment is so important. When freedom of the press is threatened, the United States should be leading efforts to protect it.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, was deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.