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Tunisian Political Cartoonist _Z_: ‘Nothing Has Really Changed’

This post is part of our special coverage Tunisia Revolution 2011.

Tunisian anonymous political cartoonist ‘_Z_’ has been using his blog debatunisie.com to express himself since 2007. His caricatures which did not please former autocratic ruler Zeine el-Abidin Ben Ali, do not seem to please Tunisia’s Islamists either.

_Z_ says that there are only two red lines he never crosses: “libel, and racism.” For him, religion should not be a taboo, and this is what provoked some Internet users who reported his Facebook page over caricatures which they deemed insulting to Islam. On August 7, 2011, _Z_ wrote:

En réponse à leurs protestations les robots de Zuckerberg m'interdisent durant 30 jours de publier sur mon profil(…)La guerre contre les “bonnes mœurs”, la morale religieuse, la bigoterie, doit être absolue. En ce qui me concerne, il est évident que je serai bientôt hors-la loi à partir du moment que la constituante validera la loi sur l'atteinte au sacré.

In response to their complaints, Zuckerberg's robots have prohibited me from publishing on my Facebook profile for 30 days (…) The war against “good morals”, religious morality, and bigotry shall be absolute. For me, it is obvious that I will soon turn into an outlaw once the assembly (in charge of drafting a new constitution) passes the anti-blasphemy law

I interviewed _Z_ via e-mail about his caricatures, anonymity, religion and freedom of expression in Tunisia.

Global Voices (GV): When and why did you decide to use the blogosphere to publish your cartoons?

_Z_: I launched my blog on 28 August, 2007. Since the beginning, it was obvious to me that my target would be the regime of Ben Ali. First, I only wrote texts. Then, I had the idea of accompanying my writings with drawings. This had earned my blog uniqueness, and attracted larger audience.

Even though, the adage “a picture is better that a long speech” remains true, it was important for me to emphasize writing because my action, in the first place, was political and intellectual, something the caricature on its own cannot assure.

GV: You are known under the pseudonym _Z_. Almost 19 months after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, you still prefer to conceal your identity. Why is that?

_Z_: My position toward the former Ben Ali regime necessitated utmost vigilance from my part regarding my identity. I definitely had to protect myself to avoid any retaliation. Dictatorship fell 19 months ago, and so far not a single serious investigation into the policing of the web [during the Ben Ali regime] was conducted. This machine, we called Ammar 404, and which was used to spread horror on the Tunisian net (censorship, arrests, threats…), could still be in place today waiting for a reactivation signal. So, for me nothing has really changed despite appearances and this is why I still keep my anonymity.

"The Tunisia National Theater presents (for the fifth time) the electoral comedy". Cartoon published on the occasion of the 2009 Tunisia presidential and legislative elections

“The Tunisia National Theater presents (for the fifth time) the electoral comedy”. Cartoon published on the occasion of the 2009 Tunisia presidential and legislative elections

GV: No one ever dared to mock Ben Ali and ridicule his regime the way you did. The former regime did not succeed in revealing your real identity. How did you manage to protect your anonymity? Any tips to share with online cyber-dissidents wishing to hide their identities?

_Z_: In order to protect themselves, they simply have to separate their dissident lives from their daily lives. Using different e-mails and proxies. But most important, maintaining utmost discretion and avoid talking about it even to the closest circles. Abrogation often permitted the arrest of cyber dissidents and this was the case for Zouhaier Yahyaoui. [Tunisia’s first cyber-dissident to be condemned and jailed]

GV: For you there are no red lines. With the Islamists’ rise to power, you have started not only criticizing them, but also drawing Islamic religious symbols (God, prophets…). This has provoked Islamists who reported your Facebook page Debatunisie. Could provocation help break taboos?

_Z_: I only consider libel, and racist insults as red lines. Otherwise, there is nothing that can justify any kind of censorship. Even though I’m aware that I do hurt the feelings of some, I believe that we have to elevate the supremacy of freedom above religious sacredness (even if it represents the majority) and accept the famous adage that says “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

For me, democracy is not complying with the dominant thought (which leads to the dictatorship of the majority), but rather the ability to express publicly any idea, be it pertaining to a minority or disturbing, as long as it is neither defamatory nor racist.

For me this is about freedom of conscience (article 5 of the constitution) which makes the notion of the sacred relative. So, the blasphemous only exists within a religious system, but not within a system that tolerates freedom of conscience. Even though article 5 still exists today, in practice it is being ignored. They brought legal proceedings against Nessma TV over the broadcast of an animation representing God. They sentenced a netizen to seven and half-years in prison over the publishing of blasphemous caricatures. So, it is very clear that in practice, the religious taboo comes ahead of freedom of conscience, and therefore ahead of all freedoms

A woman writes "freedom, justice and dignity" on the floor. She is surrounded by the Islamic Shahada in the shape of cement walls. Via this caricature published on June, 10 _Z_ criticizes <a href="http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/06/18/tunisia-final-draft-of-new-constitution-preamble-causes-controversy/">final draft of the new constitution</a> preamble which he says "stinks with an identity obsession".

A woman writes “freedom, justice and dignity” on the floor. She is surrounded by the Islamic Shahada in the shape of cement walls. Via this caricature published on June, 10 _Z_ criticizes final draft of the new constitution preamble which he says “stinks with an identity obsession”.

GV: The Islamist party Ennahdha recently proposed an anti-blasphemy bill. Do you have concerns, that in case the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) approves this bill, your caricatures will soon be censored?

_Z_: After the birth of a revolution in the name of freedom, we absolutely do not have the right to draw the map of our liberties in terms of taboos and religious bans. It is like starting with the grilles when drawing the plan of a garden. This is what the Islamists are doing, and this why I am against their policies. I will keep on playing the provocation card even if it displeases a large number of my audience, or if it is going to make me an outlaw because there is indeed a risk that the NCA would approve this anti-revolutionary bill

GV: The fall of the Ben Ali regime revealed talented Tunisian cartoonists. What do you think of these new talents?

_Z_: This is obvious and fortunate. Yet, many envy my anonymity. This is not a good sign as it shows the comeback of fear and censorship. Despite all this, I do admit that we are still enjoying a freedom atmosphere incomparable with what we used to live under during the regime of Ben Ali.

This post is part of our special coverage Tunisia Revolution 2011.

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