“A free press is an essential cornerstone of any country based on democracy,” says Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman, in an exclusive interview with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, to mark 3 May, World Press Freedom Day.
“We need to achieve full press freedom, not a fragmented version,” she writes. “We need to practice it without prohibitions.”
Her comments are nowhere more valid than Tunisia, the brightest star of the Arab awakening which may yet be dimmed by a cloud of intolerance evident in the blasphemy trial of an executive from the Nessma TV station..
“A week before Tunisians voted in the fall for their first freely elected government since 1956,” the Washington Post reports….
Nessma aired the French-language animated movie “Persepolis,” based on an Iranian exile’s graphic novel about a girl who comes of age during Iran’s 1979 revolution. In the weeks after the broadcast, Karoui’s house was destroyed by a mob of vandals and Nessma’s offices were repeatedly attacked — all because of a short scene in which the girl imagines herself talking to God, who appears as an old man with a long, white beard.
Now, Karoui’s on trial, and so is Tunisia’s year-old revolution and the young democracy it has wrought. For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.
What was somebody saying about illiberal converts to democracy?
“Even in the Middle East and North Africa, the explosive improvement in the regional average score obscures considerable differences among individual countries,” writes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House:
The map below shows how gains and declines were distributed across the region, with significant progress limited to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Most other countries’ scores remained unchanged or underwent some degree of deterioration; Syria and Bahrain suffered sizable declines.
The gains in the Middle East and North Africa are certainly remarkable, in part because they effectively transformed two of the worst media environments in the world—Tunisia and Libya. But the improvements are not yet well supported by new institutional, legal, and regulatory structures. Vigilance will be required as these countries seek to consolidate their transitions and begin adopting and enforcing new laws and constitutions. If the hard-won progress to date can be successfully defended and expanded upon, the year 2011 will mark a genuine turning point for press freedom in both the region and the world, rather than an isolated deviation from the prevailing negative trend.
Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.