The Daily Need

Owner of Tunisian TV station released from jail after arrest sparks free speech concerns

Photo: Nasser Nouri

The owner of one of Tunisia’s most influential television networks was released from jail on Monday after authorities briefly shut down the channel and arrested the owner and his son for “high treason.” The arrest had sparked concern among Tunisian activists that the interim unity government was violating its pledge to protect freedom of speech, after the fall of that country’s authoritarian regime earlier this month.

France 24 reported on Monday that the television network, Hannibal TV, said its owner, Larbia Nasra, had been released after Tunisia’s interim government imprisoned him for allegedly stirring unrest and working to restore Tunisia’s ousted autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “There is no longer an accusation against me,” Nasra told journalists on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse. “I was accused of charges that are punishable by the death sentence but I forgive everyone.”

The website Tunisia Online News also reported that Hannibal TV had resumed broadcasting on Sunday after an interruption of about four hours. A minister in Tunisia’s unity government, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, appeared on the station afterward to apologize for the “error,” adding that “the government has entrusted me with this mission” to restore the network’s broadcast.

The outage came as protesters continued to call for the resignation of Tunisia’s prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, as well as the remaining members of Ben Ali’s cabinet. Despite the change in government, most of the leading ministerial positions are still held by former members of Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. Even those opposition leaders who have joined the government, such as blogger and human rights activist Slim Amamou, have been asked to abandon the new administration until it purges all vestiges of Ben Ali’s regime.

Amamou, the interim government’s secretary of state for youth and sport, has resisted the calls, writing on Twitter, “I won’t last long in the govt. anyway. I’m not here to build a career.”

Amamou’s surprise appointment — just a week earlier, he had been imprisoned by Ben Ali’s regime for inciting riots — was designed to reassure Tunisians of the government’s commitment to freedom of speech, a commitment that seemed in doubt when Hannibal TV was shut down. The backlash against Ben Ali’s repressive tactics is at the core of Tunisia’s sudden uprising, analysts say. Before Ben Ali’s ouster, Tunisia was one of the Arab world’s most stable countries, a secular state and a strong American ally.

Now Tunisian protesters, led by the country’s Internet-savvy youth, are clamoring for greater freedoms such as the ability to express themselves without restriction, something online media and social networking sites like YouTube and Twitter have already allowed them to do. The 26-year-old street vendor who touched off the protests by setting himself on fire, Mohamed Bouazizi, posted an essay explaining his shocking act on Facebook.

“People, as much as they might like their leaders, at the end of the day, they’re looking at the rest of the world and saying, ‘Why not me?’” Octavia Nasr, the former senior editor for Middle East affairs at CNN and a native of Lebanon, said in an interview last week. “‘Why can’t I express my opinions? Why can’t I do the things that I want? Why do I always have to watch what I say?’”

The Tunisian revolution has inspired similar soul-searching in other Arab states, such Algeria, Saudi Arabia and, most notably, Egypt, which is slated to hold presidential elections later this year. Whether those countries are ready to endure the kind of political turmoil that has brought change in Tunisia remains unclear. At the very least, moments like the brief shut-down of one of Tunisia’s most important private television channels — and the reversal of that decision after a public outcry — serve only to highlight similar tactics in other Arab countries that have so far gone unchallenged.

“Saudi Arabia is jailing bloggers. Egypt is jailing bloggers, putting opposition members in jail,” Nasr said. “This is going on. But what Tunisia did, it sort of lit up that fire within people who want change, and said, ‘You know, you can get change with your own hands. Stop waiting for outside forces to come and help you. This is something that you can do on your own.’”

 
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