Inside Story
Was the revolution lost in Tunisia and Egypt?
As state censorship threatens freedom of expression, we ask if new leaders have adopted the old practices of oppression.
Last Modified: 05 Sep 2012 11:18

First it was the media, now it is the artists.

Censorship in the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring - Tunisia - is back.

The government has already been accused of clamping down on reporters. And now, two Tunisian artists have been charged. Their crime: creating sculptures that the authorities say are harmful to public order and good morals.

"What has been happening since Morsi took power is completely different from freedom of speech, something we did not see before. It's on TV, in newspapers, people are insulting the president, telling lies, inciting people, calling for the killing of the president. I don't think this has anything to do with freedom of speech."

- Nader Omran, a representative of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party

Nadia Jelassi's work is of a veiled woman surrounded by rocks and suggests she is being stoned, while Mohamed Ben Slama's work is of a child with ants streaming from a schoolbag that spelt out "God".

Jelassi, on being questioned by a judge on August 28, said: "I felt like I was in the times of the [Spanish] Inquisition. The investigative judge asked me about my intentions behind my works that were on exhibit and whether I had intended to provoke with this work."

The works of both artists were exhibited in a show in the town of La Marsa last June. The night the exhibition ended, protesters set fire to police stations, courts and other buildings. One person was killed and dozens injured.

Jelassi and Ben Slama face up to five years in prison if convicted.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch called on the Tunisian authorities to drop the charges against the two sculptors for their art works, adding that the "criminal prosecutions of artists for works of art that do not incite violence or discrimination violate the right to freedom of expression".

The group said that "repressive laws" created under Tunisia's fallen dictator are still being used to "silence those who dissent or think differently".

"Before January 14 [2011] we were fighting against censorship, now the problem is that we don't have independent justice because the executive power is dominating the judiciary…. The problem in Tunisia is not about Islam. It is about the independence of [the judiciary]."

- Lilia Weslaty, a journalist

There are other cases in Tunisia that have also raised questions over freedom of expression.

Meanwhile in Egypt, two journalists are facing trial on charges of insulting Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president.

The trials, the first since Morsi took power in June, prompted accusations by Egyptian pro-democracy activists that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to stifle freedom of expression.

Over the summer, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists documented a series of attacks on Egyptian media. They include a newspaper being taken over, censorship of several others, and a physical assault on three journalists.

On this episode of Inside Story we ask: Is freedom of expression under threat in so-called Arab Spring countries?

Joining presenter Jane Dutton for the discussion are guests: Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division and an expert on the Maghreb region; Lilia Weslaty, a journalist and chief associate of Nawaat.org; and Nader Omran, a representative of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

"The real danger [in Egypt] is that the laws that [Hosni] Mubarak used to put journalists in prison and to control the media are still there, and as long as those laws are there no matter who's in power they're going to use these laws, and that's what we're seeing happening now."

Eric Goldstein, an expert on the Maghreb region


  • Tunisia – in March two bloggers were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam. More recently, a satirical puppet show was taken off the air, a move journalists said was another attempt at government censorship.
  • Egypt – in August, Islam Afifi, the editor-in-chief of an independent daily, Al Dostour, faced charges of spreading false news and humiliating the president. His trial is expected to begin later this month. In April, a popular comedian, Adel Imam, was convicted in an Egyptian court of insulting Islam.


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