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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, standing on the ruins of ancient Carthage. We're by the Mediterranean Sea, which is almost sky blue today. This city was a city in what is now Tunisia. It was the capital of an empire destroyed by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, then rebuilt before it fell into ruin again. Today, what we see are a couple of stone columns rising against the sky, and below them, just the foundations of ancient buildings.

We've come here to begin a journey along this historic coastline through Tunisia, through Libya, through Egypt. We're watching as nations rebuild themselves after the revolutions known as the Arab Spring. We're talking with many people, including a man who works in a palace next door to the ruins. He's the new president of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki.

Is it fair to say that you face the job of rebuilding a government, or building a government almost from the foundations?

PRESIDENT MONCEF MARZOUKI: Yes. Yes, of course. Because, you know, when you have a dictatorship, the dictatorship destroys the social systems, you know, like the judiciary, like the press, like - even the health system. So now we have to rebuild completely, and this will take a long time.

INSKEEP: That's Tunisia's new president, who works in the same palace where a dictator ruled this country for more than 20 years.

We're going to be listening over the next few days as nations of the Arab Spring write new rules for themselves. And we begin this journey right here on the ruins of ancient Carthage.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is with us. Eleanor covered the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, has returned to the country. And Eleanor, what's one big change that you see in this country, compared to before?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, I think one of the biggest changes is that people can now express themselves freely. They can talk politics. They can even denounce that new president if they want to. But as they talk, some new taboos are emerging, and I want to tell you a story about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF NESSMA BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Nessma is one of Tunisia's most popular television stations. It serves up sitcoms, sports, news and movies. Nessma was founded five years ago by 49-year-old Tunisian entrepreneur Nabil Karoui.

NABIL KAROUI: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: From his downtown Tunis office, Karoui says he had to deal with a lot of censorship problems under the regime of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. But that was nothing compared to what he's gone through since Tunisia's revolution in January 2011. Last October, on the eve of the country's first democratic poll, Karoui aired the film "Persepolis," an animated depiction of a young girl's life at home and abroad after Iran's Islamic Revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PERSEPOLIS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

KAROUI: I showed the film. It was important. I did it on purpose. It was a political choice, you know, and will make the people understand what does it means when Islamists take the power. You know, and they didn't like it. I was expecting a reaction, but political reaction, like press things. I never expected that I will live this nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BEARDSLEY: The day after "Persepolis" aired, hundreds of fundamentalist Muslims, known as Salafists, attacked Nessma TV. They also set fire to Karoui's house and burned his cars. The Salafists were angry over the film's depiction of God, a sacrilege in Islam. Later, the Salafists took Karoui to court for violating moral values. Nessma lost the case in May and was ordered to pay a symbolic fine of $1,500. Karoui says the money is nothing, but he still plans to appeal on principle.

Karoui is not the only member of the media to get into hot water lately. A newspaper editor was briefly jailed for publishing a picture of a scantily-clad woman. And two bloggers were given seven-year prison terms for blasphemy on Facebook.

Seif Eddine Makhlouf is one of the lawyers who brought the case against Nessma. In his downtown office, a framed Koranic verse hangs over his desk. Makhlouf says he has no problem with free speech, but every society has its limits.

SEIF EDDINE MAKHLOUF: (Through translator) In Germany, you can't draw the swastika. America has its Patriot Act. In Tunisia, you can attack the government, the president, any person. But you can't attack God, people's beliefs and what is sacred. This film was a kind of symbolic violence against the people.

BEARDSLEY: Lotfi Ben Sassi is a well-known political cartoonist who had many brushes with the censor during the dictatorship. Tunisia's revolution, he says, has brought new taboos.

LOTFI BEN SASSI: But now, it's religious censorship. So we must take care what we are saying about religion, about sacred things, because when you speak about religion, it make them crazy.

BEARDSLEY: Since independence from France in 1956, Tunisian leaders have cracked down on those considered too religious. Many members of the moderate Islamist party that won last October's parliamentary elections were jailed and even tortured under those regimes. Today, as people are free to practice their religion and to speak out, Tunisians are testing the waters, says Fares Mabrouk with the Arab Policy Institute.

FARES MABROUK: Tunisia is the laboratory of the Arab world. We are today addressing all the questions that we should have addressed one century ago. We are negotiating our past, our common values, where are the red lines of the freedom of speech.

BEARDSLEY: Ennahda, the moderate Muslim party that now leads the ruling coalition, insists it supports freedom of speech. But critics say the party is trying to exert control over the media. For the first time, female TV announcers have been pressured to wear the headscarf.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

BEARDSLEY: And Ennahda is accused of sponsoring sit-ins in front of the national radio and television stations to press for more editorial control. Nessma TV's Nabil Karoui says there is a fight going on for the soul of Tunisia.

KAROUI: We fight for the freedom. Let me tell you, it's amazing. And we will fight until we die to keep this freedom.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

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