Controversial Tunisian Court Ruling Reflects Dilemmas of the Arab Spring

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Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

The director of the Tunisian private TV channel Nessma television, Nabil Karoui leaves the courthouse on April 19, 2012 in Tunis.

In a sign that conservative Islam could yet take hold in this modern, largely secular country—home to the Arab Spring’s first revolution—a feisty, blunt-talking TV executive was convicted on Thursday of airing an animated depiction of the Prophet Mohamed in the American-French film “Persepolis,” suggesting that Western-style free speech might yield to stronger demands from hardline Muslims.

After months of legal battle, Nessma TV owner Nabil Karoui was fined 2,400 Tunisian dinars (about $1,400) for violating public morals and disturbing public order, a small sum for a man whose channel is wildly popular across North Africa for its glitzy entertainment shows like Star Academy, the region’s equivalent of American Idol, and for sponsoring sporting events.

The timing of Thursday’s judgment against Karoui could hardly be more awkward for this government. It came, no less, on World Press Freedom Day, whose U.N.-sponsored meeting is taking place this year in Tunis, where the government has pitched itself as a moderate Western-friendly ally since the 24-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali collapsed in January last year, setting off the revolutionary wave that has upended this entire region. Hundreds of journalists and diplomats on Thursday began gathering in this breezy Mediterranean capital for meetings about free speech on Friday and Saturday. In the presidential palace, Tunisia’s interim President Moncef Marzouki told TIME that while the country has an independent judiciary, he himself abhorred the judge’s decision against Karoui. “I think this verdict is bad for the image of Tunisia,” he said. “Now people in the rest of the world will only be talking about this when they talk about Tunisia.”

Karoui, meanwhile, has seen his life transformed into a nerve-racking nightmare since Nessma TV aired “Persepolis” last October, a week before the country’s first democratic elections.

Days after the broadcast, about 150 hardliners torched Karoui’s house with firebombs. Karoui briefly fled to France with his wife and two children, but returned shortly after. Now, he says, bodyguards escort his children to school, and stand inside the school building until driving them home. Lighting a cigar up in his top-floor office of Nessma’s downtown headquarters, Karoui points out the window to two beefy bodyguards on the sidewalk below.

Among the crowds that demonstrated during Karoui’s trial, outside the courthouse, some have even chanted for the media boss to be hanged. A popular religious rap star Mohamed Jendoubi, who calls himself Psycho M, told TIME after the verdict that many, including him, believe the government should shut Nessma permanently. And in an interview on Wednesday, one of the lawyers who brought charges against Karoui, said the West should not expect its own form of democracy in Tunisia. “The definition of freedom is very different in Islamic countries than in the West,” he told TIME. “There is no division in Islam between life and religion.”

“Persepolis” is the French-Iranian filmmaker Marjan Satrapi’s story of growing up in Tehran, and had been shown several times at Tunisian film festivals during Ben Ali’s dictatorship. But with the emergence of political Islam, the broadcast became a flashpoint in a much broader struggle. Nessma became an increasingly obvious target for those seeking to inject more Islam into Tunisian life, since the network’s mission is to offer alternative, modern programming to most of the region’s fare. “It was just as if we had decided to show James Bond,” Karoui says. “They were simply looking for some excuse to hurt Nessma.”

Now, Karoui’s movements outside work are severely restricted. He says he could not attend this week’s Tunisian tennis tournament, of which Nessma is a sponsor. “I am really scared,” he says. “I cannot walk on the street. I cannot go shopping. I have to change my routine all the time.” For all that, he says his trial has made him world famous—the phone rang throughout our 90-minute meeting on Thursday, with interview requests from around the world. “I’ve bought myself a global advertising campaign for 2,500 dinars,” he laughs.

Jokes aside, both the West and secular Tunisians were unsettled by Karoui’s conviction, fearing that fierce battles over personal freedoms could lie ahead. As hated as Ben Ali was, he imposed secularism on this country, banning the wearing of the Islamic veil in public institutions and allowing free access to alcohol, for example. Washington, for one, is watching closely to see if those liberties come under threat. “This country is the home of the Arab awakening, so what happens here is particularly important,” Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for International Organizations Esther Brimmer told TIME in Tunis, after arriving here on Thursday, shortly after Karoui’s conviction. “Here was a major media outlet trying to express their point of view.”

The interim President Marzouki, a secular human-rights leader who was appointed to his post four months ago as part of a coalition with the far more dominant Ennadha, a moderate Islamist party, said he would fight to defend free-speech rights especially since Tunisia’s new constitution will be an example for the region’s other new democracies. Perhaps no issue so neatly encapsulates that test as freedom of expression. “I am opposed to any kind of censorship,” he says. “I prefer the bad side effects of free expression.”