Thu, Nov 20, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Tunisian artists, media fear return of restrictions

AFP, TUNIS

Tunisian rappers, comedians and journalists, fearful that next week’s presidential election could cement a return to power by partisans of the former dictatorship, are bracing themselves to defend the freedoms won since it was ousted in 2011.

Under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, tough censorship sharply circumscribed freedom of expression in the media and performing arts.

Journalists critical of the regime were harassed, and sometimes arrested and jailed, but always on the pretext of an offense other than offending the powers that be.

The government also demanded a pro-regime line from the media. A flattering piece on Ben Ali could always be found on the front page, and another at the top of the lineup on the television news.

Performing artists, particularly comedians and actors, had to tip-toe around issues and personalities, although some braver souls deliberately overstepped the boundaries and were sometimes punished.

Rappers, a particular bane of the old regime, are leading the way in warning against what they fear could be the effective return to power of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party in the shape of the Nidaa Tounes party, which won parliamentary elections last month.

Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi is the favorite to win Sunday’s election.

Essebsi, 87, a pillar of the old guard, served as interior minister during the authoritarian regime of former president Habib Bourguiba, and as parliamentary speaker in the early 1990s under then-president Ben Ali.

“O RCDists ... we thought we’d got rid of you, but you’ve had the nerve to return,” hip-hop star El General raps in a video clip featuring Nidaa Tounes politicians.

Weld El, 15, another rapper and a fierce critic of the moderate Muslim movement Ennahda that formed the North African country’s first post-revolution government, sees no cause to celebrate the rise of its Nidaa Tounes rivals.

It “leaves the door wide open to Ben Ali cronies, experts in the art of censorship and repression,” he said.

“Freedom of expression was the main achievement of the revolution and we will never let anyone, whoever it is, take that away from us. We’re not scared of anyone,” he said.

Comedian Lotfi Abdelli said that changing the target of his jibes from Ennahda to the secular Nidaa Tounes has also raised hackles.

“For three years they used to tell me: ‘Go on, you’re good, you’re witty... Now that I’ve been attacking Nidaa Tounes a bit, I’ve become the guy who has no humor, no respect,” he said.

Abdelli can’t resist coming up with an example: “Old Essebsi ... can go to two meetings at the same time: he goes to one and he sends his dentures to the other.”

Essebsi’s critics question his advanced age and argue that he does not represent Tunisia’s youth, who spearheaded the 2011 revolt.

Formed only two years ago, Nidaa Tounes rapidly emerged as the principal opposition to Ennahda, which it accused of taking the country backwards.

However, while Nidaa Tounes does incorporate figures aligned with the old regime, it also includes businesspeople, intellectuals, trade unionists and even left-wing activists.

Its defenders say that while it won the most seats in parliament, it did not gain enough to rule on its own. It needs to form a coalition and faces an Islamist opposition that made a strong showing.

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