Nabil Karoui owns the HBO of Tunisia, a satellite TV channel called Nessma (“Breeze”) that shows Hollywood movies and TV series.
A week before Tunisians voted in the fall for their first freely elected government since 1956, Nessma aired the French-language animated movie “Persepolis,” based on an Iranian exile’s graphic novel about a girl who comes of age during Iran’s 1979 revolution. In the weeks after the broadcast, Karoui’s house was destroyed by a mob of vandals and Nessma’s offices were repeatedly attacked — all because of a short scene in which the girl imagines herself talking to God, who appears as an old man with a long, white beard.
Now, Karoui’s on trial, and so is Tunisia’s year-old revolution and the young democracy it has wrought. For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.
Last month, on this capital city’s main boulevard, Islamist activists attacked actors who were celebrating World Theater Day; Islamists smashed musical instruments and hurled eggs. A hard-line preacher stood in front of Tunis’s Grand Synagogue and called for the murder of Tunisian Jews. And a Tunisian philosopher who showed up at a TV station for a debate on Islam was shouted down by extremists, who said he was no scholar of the faith because he has no beard.
In each case, calls for a state crackdown on offensive speech banged up against cries for the government to defend even unpopular expression. Karoui’s day in court became a nonstop, seven-hour shoutfest that will determine whether he is fined, imprisoned, or worse. A verdict is expected Thursday.
In Tunisia, defendants hire a lawyer, but any lawyer in the land may join the prosecution or defense, and those lawyers have the same right to argue in court as hired attorneys. The result: a pulsating black mass of robed men (and a handful of women) surging to the front of Courtroom 10, each with his own view of what should be done to Karoui.
Shouldn’t the death penalty be considered, asks lawyer Nasser Saidi: “Anything related to God is absolute. This was a test of the Tunisian people’s ability to defend God, and they have passed the test.”
No, five years max, says Karoui’s chief attorney, Omar Labiadh. But how can this case even be in court, he asks. Before the revolution, he says, “ ‘Persepolis’ was broadcast at least five times on Tunisian TV.”