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'Persepolis' screening stirs passions in Tunisia

By Houda Trabelsi for Magharebia in Tunis – 14/10/11

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Fresh protests rocked the Tunisian capital last week-end. This time, the public anger revolved around the broadcasting of a controversial French-Iranian film.

"Persepolis", an autobiographical animated film by Marjane Satrapi, was aired last Friday on Nessma TV. The comic depicts the story of an Iranian girl during the 1979 revolution and includes a scene of her conversation with God, personified as a white-bearded man.

Protests followed two days later, with some 200 people storming the offices of the television channel. The public prosecution in Tunis on Monday opened a criminal investigation of Nessma TV for defaming Islam. A day later, the head of the channel apologised for "the dissemination of the controversial and considered blasphemous sequence representing the divine being".

"I consider this a mistake that will never be repeated," Nabil Karoui said. "We did not mean to offend Muslims by airing it on Friday in particular. That day just coincided with the date of airing the weekly talk show."

Meanwhile, Karoui expressed "astonishment" at some reactions that resulted from showing the film, including comments made by Ennahda Movement that the TV station "intended to offend Islamists in Tunisia".

"Our internal statistics show that this party is on the top of parties that are invited to our talk shows on Nessma TV," Karoui explained.

The controversy surrounding the broadcasting prompted a debate on freedom of speech and respect for religious beliefs in the post-revolution Tunisia. While some believe that the move crossed the red lines at this sensitive juncture in the nation's history, others maintain that the reactions were overblown.

"Nessma TV is not allowed to attack beliefs and sanctities," said Tunisian journalist Hedi Tarchouni. "Everyone should show responsibility towards the October 23rd election date to fend off any attempt to confuse or derail the electoral process."

For his part, journalist Mokhtar Khalfaoui argued that there is a deeper meaning to the movie than just the pictorial depiction of God.

"One of the biggest fallacies is to turn the issue from an animated movie telling an autobiography, or a collective biography of the Iranian revolution that ended in the biggest dictatorship, and reduce all that to a short, human and a deep poetic scene in which a child is visited by her own God," he said. "This is their fallacy so that people may not pay attention to the lesson to be learnt from the film, which is that a revolution can only be associated with the idea of progress."

"I think that the timing of airing the film is not suitable," Maha Jemai, 29, told Magharebia. "Tunisia needs calm and stability now so that the election of the Constituent Assembly may pass in peace. As a viewer, I respect and appreciate the freedom of expression, but we must not cross certain red lines such as attacks on religions and people’s beliefs whatever their religion may be."

Meanwhile, the National Commission for the Reform of Media and Communication said they "strongly condemn all forms of violence and attempts to intimidate journalists and silence them".

"We believe that this attempted attack poses a danger to the freedom of expression, which is one of the pillars of democracy," the media reform panel said in a statement. "Therefore, we call on the authorities concerned to take all the necessary actions to protect this right and guarantee the freedom of media."

The commission called on all media institutions to abide by the code of press ethics, including neutrality and objectivity, as well as exhibit responsibility and avoid any attempts to derail the electoral process.

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  1. Anonymous thumb

    saif 2012-4-16

    I haven’t watched the movie which was screened but I call upon Nabil to ask God’s forgiveness. Humans aren’t faultless. May God guide all believers!


  2. Anonymous thumb

    saif 2012-4-16

    May God guide them! This is something unfortunate for Nabil and a big insult to him. May God help him! This is related to critics in the media not an Islamic group. Everyone errs. Humans are not perfect.


  3. Anonymous thumb

    dechte 2011-10-18

    Move along! There is nothing to see! After Zaba locked the Tunisians into silence, we are going to move on to another, more sordid dictatorship because the outcome of the polls will lock people into the pseudo-religious singular thought. O’, we are far from the Golden Age of Islam, where the people vied for new ideas and ijtihad! You are crazy, a bunch of obscurantists!


  4. Anonymous thumb

    ghoul 2011-10-15

    This is a country of sick people who are locked in cages. In Tunisia, they think of Bin Laden as Santa Claus. Good bye to the belle époque of Zine. You are going to see the see the golden sands go up in smoke and burn before your eyes. Then you will regret this. Good luck to the democrats. Lampedusa awaits you.


  5. Anonymous thumb

    yidir 2011-10-15

    Who are those "people"??!!!....and who they think they are??!!!Did they ring the bells of the apocalypse or did they established their Planet of the apes already....so they see themselfs as the God's protectors....the ones who insult God are those religious holligaans because they see God as somebody who is week and afraid and so in need of their protection!!!.....Does God need people to protect him against people???!!..this is the absolute zenith of arrogance and blasphemy: seeing God as somebdy week who needs help and protection from humans...but i'am afraid they have no time and brains to concider their deeds and actions let alone follow this kind of reasoning, because their way of doing and thinking is based on superficial hooliganism and fascism not science or logical humanism.The only thing they believe in is power and violence. There is no resoning with mad vampiers!!!


  6. Anonymous thumb

    rim 2011-10-15

    Mr Nabil, time is not adequate for this. We need so much security and safety. We are going through a transitional decisive and significant phase. As a faithful viewer of your channel, I blame you for this act. However, freedom of expression on the other hand is required and freedom of belief should be taken into consideration as we are a democratic country calling for pluralism, freedom and democracy. But if we analyse the topic from another political aspect, you are involved with this elite with Ennahda party in order to raise the voter turnout in the name of the religion of Islam. But please be careful and preserve the safety of the Tunisian people. Slow down and be reasonable, don’t compete for power. O parties, struggle for the interest of the people and the individual before the group.