When Nebil Karoui chose to air “Persepolis” on his Tunisian channel, he thought it was “a nonevent.” Now the television station owner is surrounding himself with bodyguards and battling the courts, terrified that the religious fervor unleashed after the so-called Arab Spring will cost him his livelihood or even his life.
“My house is like a fortress. My kids have bodyguards. It’s a nightmare. We don’t have a life now,” Karoui said in a phone interview with The Times. “Before the revolution we had a tyrant, but we had security. Islamists had no chance to do something like this.”
Last week, a Tunisian court slapped Karoui with a fine of 2,400 dinars, or more than $1,500, for disrupting public order and threatening morality by showing the film on his Nessma station in October. Shortly afterward, two imams issued a fatwa calling for his death, upset with what they viewed as a light sentence, according to Karoui.
"It's appalling, 2,400 dinars for somebody who made a mockery of God and offended Muslim feelings," one Tunisian man tearfully told the Agence France-Presse when the verdict was announced.
The celebrated animated film about a girl coming of age amid the Iranian Revolution is a lyrical tale that underscores the dark side of Islamists taking power -- a fear rumbling among Tunisian moderates just a few weeks before elections last fall. The movie, directed by Iranian-born French graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, also includes a depiction of God, forbidden in Islam.
But Karoui wasn't worried. The film had been screened in Tunisian cinemas when Karoui chose to air it. Few people watched it when it aired, he said. Which is why Karoui was stunned when dozens of people took to Facebook the same day, insisting that he should be killed, his station burned to the ground.
Police fended off enraged crowds toting gasoline outside his station, he said. But they did not save his house, burned to the ground. Many of the culprits are still free, Karoui said.
The North African nation ousted dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali nearly a year and a half ago, the first of the Arab Spring uprisings that have swept through the Middle East. But in the months that followed, critics say new repression has emerged from the Islamist government that took power.
"In the last year we were free like we never were before," Karoui said. "It was a dream for us. But in the United States or the UK, you have laws, you have rules. Someone elected by the people cannot stop a journalist from criticizing him. We don't have these rules yet."
The "Persepolis" case was seen as a test of media freedom under its new leaders, a test it was widely seen as having failed. Human rights groups and Western governments were especially galled that Tunisia punished Karoui on World Press Freedom Day, a spectacular case of poor timing that ramped up news coverage of the story. Hundreds of articles were written worldwide about the case.
"His conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia," U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray said in a statement after the verdict.
Karoui plans to appeal the fine. "I will stand and defend my position. It's not a crime to air a movie," he said. "If they don't like it, they just have to change the channel."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: The director of the Tunisian private TV channel Nessma television, Nebil Karoui, at his office on May 3, 2012, in Tunis. Credit: Fethi Beladfethi Belaid / AFP/Getty Images