Tunisia: Artists under attack

22 June 2012

Art pieces at the ‘Printemps des Arts’ fair in Tunis have caused public outrage for being ‘blasphemous’ and offensive to Islam. The artists involved have received death threats and their works at the art fair were destroyed. The Minister of Culture condemned the artworks, which in return caused an uproar in the Tunisian arts community.

A wave of violence was triggered by the art fair exhibition in Marsa, a municipality in the North of the capital, of works considered to be insulting of Islam and an attack on correct behaviour. On the night of 10 June, ultra-conservative Islamists attacked the gallery, and several pieces of artwork were destroyed.

On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close Palais El-Abdelia, where the controversial Printemps des Arts fair’s closing ceremony took place. The Country’s minister of Culture, Mabrouk, told Radio Shems FM on the morning of 14 June that six art works deemed to be “provocative” had been confiscated.

A video is circulated on the web in which Cheikh Houcine Laabidi, the Imam of the Zitouna mosque in Tunis, states that artist who create blasphemous works are “infidel” and therefore should “be killed and their blood be spilled”. His mosque is one of the oldest and most well-known places of worship in Tunisia, considered the most important mosque in the Maghreb.

The request to kill the artists involved was reiterated three times by Houcine Laabidi during a sermon he delivered on 15 June 2012.

Also on Facebook, the names and pictures of the artists have circulated with death threats attached to them.

A group of artists are allegedly going to be suing Cheich Houcine Laabidi. The Cheikh has been immediately ousted out of his functions by the Ministry for Religious Affairs. The Minstry also announced that he will have to justify in court his irresponspible and inacceptable instigations.

A series of curfews were imposed in eight cities across the country because of the public outrage which lead to violence between Islamist protesters and security forces. “Your art violates Islam,” raged the demonstrators.

65 police officers were reported to have been injured in the street fighting, and more than 165 protesters were arrested.

Demanding minister’s resignation
Tunisia experiences a deepening cultural battles in with the government struggling to take a clear position in the debate between freedom of expression and the defence of ‘sacred values’, reported the tv-station Al Jazeera.

The government condemned the violent attack on the art gallery. However, at a press conference, the Minister of Culture, Mahdi Mabrouk, condemned the artwork at the Printemps des Arts Abdellia exhibit as sacrilegious, and stated, “It’s enough for art to be beautiful, it shouldn’t be revolutionary.”
“In art, there is provocation. Art sometimes provokes, and this is its role. But there is a red line which separates provocation and the assault on sacred symbols”, said the minister.

At a press conference organised by the Union of Tunisian Artists (SMAP), artists from the union presented their position on the destruction of the artwork, and the subsequent reaction of the Minister of Culture’s declaration. Amidst cheering and applause from the crowd, Lass’ad Ben Hassine, the head of Syndicate of Writers announced, “We demand the resignation of Mahdi Mabrouk, the minister of culture. The union of artists will boycott anything that involves the ministry.”

Jalila Baccar, a theatre artist and intellectual opened the press conference saying, “During Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s regimes, political content was censored from any artworks. During the current regime, political content is still forbidden, only under the guise of ethics and religion.”

Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan spoke with Héla Ammar, a photographer who participated in the exhibition. Ammar argued that artists are being used as scapegoats and, at a time when some of her fellow artists have been forced to go into hiding, the government is encouraging a climate of fear.

Yasmine Ryan asked: “In your view, were any of these works ‘blasphemous’?”

Héla Ammar: “Absolutely not, there were no provocations from the artists. One of the paintings in particular, which represents ants coming out of a child’s schoolbag and forming the name of Allah, is by no means blasphemous. Ants are noble creatures in our religion and are even mentioned in the Quran. The problem is that the artists have been the victims of a revolting media campaign.

A misleading video montage showing a painting has been widely shared online, presenting artists as non-believers. It’s this diffusion of dishonest information and images which has provoked hatred and condemnation from a fringe of society.

YR: Do you think that some artists went too far? Should artists ‘respect cultural norms’, as Rachid Ghannouchi argued?

HA: Artists are free to create and their freedom of expression is indivisible. The concept of national or sacred values is just a pretext to muzzle artists and creativity. These concepts can be interpreted in many different ways, especially the most restrictive, which will ultimately result in Tunisia having official art and dissident art. This is very serious and echoes dark periods in history, such as [the era of] fascism.

YR: How do you view this violent reaction against artists?

HA: Unjust, unwarranted and disproportionate. It is impossible to believe that a few small paintings exhibited on the edge of a northern suburb of Tunis provoked all this violence across the country. In reality, the artists have been used as scapegoats. 

This affair has been entirely manufactured to eclipse more serious issues. We are in the middle of a war between several political movements, with the Salafists and other reactionary movements which are pressuring the present government against moderation and appeasement. 

The debates over identity and religion are false problems which distract from a precarious security situation, grave economic and social problems that have not yet been resolved, and a transitional justice system which is proving difficult to set up.

YR: Death threats against some of the artists are being spread online, along with their photos and contact information. How are those artists handling the situation?

HA: What is happening is definitely very serious because the personal details of some artists have been published on extremist [Facebook] pages which have thousands of fans. They are calling for the murder of these artists.

My friends are receiving endless phone calls and insulting messages and death threats. We are very worried because we don’t have any protection, and even the cultural ministry, which should be defending us, has abandoned us.
The minister [of culture] put out a statement condemning the violence and the calls for murder – but that is far from enough, because he has never expressly spoken up in support of artists.

The Printemps des Arts fair [Springtime Art fair] took place from 1 to 10 June 2012. It is an annual event that has been running for ten years. The festival’s title is reminiscent of ‘The Arab Spring’ which allegedly is no coincidence.

Le Monde – 14 June 2012:
Gallery with 14 photos from the exhibition
L’exposition artistique à l’origine des émeutes tunisiennes de juin

Huffington Post – 22 June 2012:
Following Tunisia’s Art Fair Riots, Artists Speak Out About the Escalating Attacks on Free Speech
What is more important to an incipient democracy: the freedom to practice your religion, or the freedom to criticize it? By Shane Ferro, Artinfo

Comic Book Legal Defend Fund – 19 June 2012:
Artistic Censorship Continues to Plague Post-Revolutionary Tunisia
Artistic censorship continues to plague Tunisian artists in the post-President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali era. By Mark Bousquet.

France24 – 18 June 2012:
Art exhibition sparks clashes in Tunis
A fresh wave of violence has got many worried about the rise of radical Islam in Tunisia.
[With video report from Tunisia.]

La Presse – 17 June 2012:
Cheikh Houcine Labidi interdit de preche

TunisiaLive – 15 June 2012:
Union of Tunisian Artists Calls for Minister of Culture to Resign
The Cinema El Mondial was in uproar today at the press conference held by the Union of Tunisian Artists (SMAP), as artists, citizens, and members of the art community vented their opinion about the events of the past few days. By Ikram Lakhdhar with Megan Radford and Carolyn Lamboley contributing.

Al Jazeera – 15 June 2012:
Tunisia’s embattled artists speak out
Violent religious and moral censorship by conservatives is on the increase, say the nation’s artists and intellectuals. By Yasmine Ryan.

ANSAmed – 15 June 2012:
Tunis: Imam of Tunis mosque, Blasphemous artists must die
Houcine Laabidi: Their blood must flow.

Index on Censorship – 13 June 2012:
Tunisian Ministry of Culture closes art gallery
On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close Palais El-Abdelia, where the controversial Pritemps des Arts fair’s closing ceremony took place last Sunday. By Afef Abrougui

TunisiaLive – 11 June 2012:
Artworks and Property Vandalized During A Night of Tension in Tunis
The artistic community in La Marsa is counting the cost after a major collective exhibition was targeted by a group of individuals last night, resulting in the destruction of several pieces of art.




UPDATE 10 July 2012

IFEX-TMG report warns Tunisian government it must act now to guarantee free expression

SOURCE: IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

(IFEX-TMG) – For the revolution and transition period to be truly successful, the Tunisian government must both pass and implement constitutional guarantees and legal reforms enshrining and safeguarding freedom of expression, association and the independence of the judiciary, says a new report by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG). The IFEX-TMG is a coalition of 21 IFEX members that has been monitoring free expression violations in Tunisia since 2004.

This final report, Spring into Winter? Fragile achievements and exceptional challenges for Tunisian free expression defenders, will be shared with the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, Samir Dilou, as well as Constitutional Assembly members at meetings this week. It serves to briefly outline the status of freedom of expression and association as well as the independence of the judiciary.

“Freedom of expression is not a privilege, it is a fundamental right that Tunisians have fought for and earned. The achievement of this right and others seem to be increasingly compromised by uncertainty, inaction and obstruction and the IFEX-TMG is calling on the government to reverse that trend and to resolutely commit to reforms,” says Virginie Jouan, Chair of the IFEX-TMG.

The report outlines the status of free expression in the country, delineates the legal and structural reforms to the media sector, which have taken shape after the revolution, and suggests further steps needed to empower the media to play a role in consolidating democracy.

Download the full report, Spring into Winter? Fragile achievements and exceptional challenges for Tunisian free expression defenders, here:
SpringintoWinter_IFEX-TMGreport_July2012FINAL.pdf (703 KB)




25 June 2012

IFEX-TMG alarmed by recent attacks on artistic expression

SOURCE: IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

(IFEX-TMG) – The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, is alarmed by the recent attacks in Tunisia on freedom of expression, in particular against artistic expression, in the name of religion.

On 10 June 2012, three ultra-conservative Islamists (reportedly two men and a woman), who were accompanied by a bailiff and a lawyer, toured the Palais El-Abdellia, an art gallery in Tunis, taking part in the Printemps des Arts modern contemporary art fair. The group demanded that the organisers take down two artworks which they claimed were offensive to Islam.

When their request was denied, the Islamists returned later that night with a large number of supporters and broke into the exhibition from the rear walls, burned the painting of Faten Gaddass, and tore to pieces two linen artworks, one by Mohamed Ben Slama, and the second by a French artist.

On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close the gallery, after violent reactions in several Tunisian cities, including the capital Tunis. Ennahda ruling party claimed that some of the artworks were provocative and that they violated the “principles of Islam and the holy beliefs of Tunisian people.”

Furthermore, the Tunisian Minister of Culture, Mehdi Mabrouk, declared that some of the artworks exhibited at Printemps des Arts do in fact violate Islamic holy symbols, which the artists deny. He has also said that some of these artworks are now under investigation. After acknowledging the provocative role of art, on the morning of 14 June, Mabrouk told Radio Shems FM that six works deemed to be “provocative” had been confiscated.

At a press conference held on 12 June, the Minister announced that the government would likely present a bill to the National Constituent Assembly which would allow criminal charges to be brought against anyone who offends “the sacred.” Blasphemy laws are a clear violation of freedom of expression and would present a serious setback to human rights in Tunisia, say IFEX-TMG members.

Previously, on 27 May, Salafist groups attacked the playwright Rajab Al-Maqary in El Kef city. He subsequently suffered serious injuries after being beaten severely on his head and chest. He is still receiving treatment in a Tunis hospital.

IFEX-TMG strongly condemns the increasing use of violence against artists and writers by ultra-conservative groups. IFEX-TMG is particularly concerned about the closure of the exhibition in the Printemps des Arts gallery by the Ministry of Culture, rather than the guaranteeing of a safe environment in which artists can work freely, without threats or censorship.

IFEX-TMG members are additionally concerned about the ongoing detention of Tunisian blogger Jabeur Ben Abdallah Mejri, who was sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment for publishing writings alleged to be offensive to Islam. Mejri’s appeal was held on 24 May and was adjourned. According to his lawyer, the new date has not been set yet. IFEX- TMG calls for his immediate release.

“It is disturbing that those entrusted to promote and defend freedom of expression in Tunisia would side with the dictates of radical groups that resort to violence and destruction to impose their views. The IFEX-TMG calls on the government to take robust steps to protect the right to free expression, so that citizens can enjoy this fundamental right without fear of retribution,” says Virginie Jouan, Chair of the IFEX-TMG.

For more information:
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Virginie Jouan, Chair
on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)
jouanvirginie (@)

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