A panel of five Tunisian judges Thursday convicted TV magnate Nabil Karoui of “disturbing public order” and “threatening public morals” by broadcasting the French movie “Persepolis,” an animated film that contains a fleeting image of God.
Karoui was fined $1,600. Two members of his staff, including the woman whose job it was to check the movie for moral and legal problems, were each fined $800. Prosecutors and lawyers representing Islamist groups argued that the owner of Nessma TV should be sentenced to prison for up to five years. At least two lawyers called for the death penalty.
In a verdict posted without explanation on a courtroom wall, the judges decided a case that had brought hundreds of Tunisian lawyers to argue over the limits of free speech in a fledgling democracy just 15 months after a revolution.
Lawyers for the Islamist groups that argued against Karoui’s right to air the movie, in which a little Iranian girl fantasizes that she is arguing with God, welcomed the verdict as a sign that Tunisia will retain its long-standing laws that restrict speech that some devout Muslims consider offensive.
Seifeddine Mahjoub, a lawyer who argued for a tougher penalty for Karoui, said he was satisfied with the verdict, which he said established that Tunisia will enforce proper boundaries on freedom of the press.
One of Karoui’s attorneys, Abada Kefi, said he had “hoped that today would be a celebration of freedom of expression and media here in Tunisia, but this is rather an occasion for mourning. This decision is a strike against creativity and freedom of expression.” He said Karoui would appeal Chief Judge Faouzi Jebali’s ruling to a higher court.
The U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, issued a statement condemning the decision. “I am concerned and disappointed by this conviction for Nessma television’s broadcast of an animated film previously approved for distribution by the Tunisian government,” Gray said. “His conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia.”
Outside the courthouse in downtown Tunis, protesters on both sides gathered to await the verdict. “Do not mock what is sacred for people,” said signs carried by some Muslims who sought a stiffer penalty for Karoui.
Karoui could not be reached immediately for comment. His lawyers had argued that Tunisia’s new media law gives wide berth to broadcasters and that post-revolutionary Tunisia ought to make clear that it is a more open and tolerant society than it was under the regime that was just overthrown.
Before the revolution, the Tunisian government had issued a certification approving “Persepolis” for showing in the country. The Academy Award nominee, based on an autobiographical graphic novel by an Iranian exile in France, had run in theaters in Tunis for two months without incident.
But when Karoui’s popular satellite channel that serves North Africa from Tunis showed the film just weeks before Tunisia’s first post-revolutionary elections last fall, angry crowds gathered outside Nessma’s studios, and a mob trashed Karoui’s house.
Clerics said that the movie insulted Islamic values by showing the face of God, who is depicted in the film as an old man with a white beard. In the scene, God persuades the young girl to act in an honest and forthright manner.
Special correspondent Sana Ajmi in Tunis contributed to this report.