Media Freedom in Tunisia

When people decide to live, destiny shall obey, and one day, darkness will disappear and the slavery chains must be broken.

Tunisian proverb

 This is a legendary verse that has been chanted for decades throughout Tunisia and is a part of the country’s national anthem since 1955.

A verse that millions of Tunisian youngsters, tired of witnessing the unfair and corrupted Zine El Abdidine Ben Ali government, shouted while protesting against the regime since the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution.
Those Tunisian youngsters, other times asleep and drugged by the state powerful mechanisms of control (repression, propaganda, silence…), sparked a revolution which has been compared to the one that took place in 1848.

Their fight has given its fruits: Ben Ali fled the country last January 2011; free elections were held in October 2011; the former dictatorship’s mechanisms, such as repression and propaganda, are slowly disappearing. But in contrast to 1848 revolutionaries, who lacked modern technology, their present day partners from Tunisia found in new media in general and social networks in particular a powerful ally. They used, Facebook, Twitter and other forums to spread their message to other Arab countries, who shared their willingness to rid their own dictators, and coordinated a net of uprisings all over the Arab region. First Egypt, then Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Sudan… The Arab World had finally awakened. 

The Arab Spring had begun.                                                                                         

This article aims to study the role of the Tunisian mass media in the revolution and how they have changed since November 2010. It aims to examine the way Ben Ali controlled the media through a number of strategies and use them as an extremely powerful tool to keep the Tunisian population asleep. Moreover, the article also looks at how the media reacted to the turmoil and how they covered the uprising, being abruptly trapped between the old way to inform –which it was mere propaganda- and the agitated breaths of fresh air claiming for changes. Finally, this article examines the current media landscape in Tunisia and studies how the country is coping with its apparent media freedom.

Before looking closely the role of the media in Tunisia, it is worth exploring how former President Ben Ali managed to govern Tunisia for so long –he came to power in 1987- and how the media fit into his program of control. 

In May 2011 Foreign Affairs article, Understanding the Revolutions of 2011, Jack A. Goldstone points out four general mechanisms used by the so called “sultanistic dictators” –Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muamar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan- to govern their citizens. 

First of all, they ruled over an oppressive state but created the illusion of democracy by allowing political parties, elections, and other democratic processes which were, subsequently, controlled by those in power. In exchange for social and political stability, they usually received foreign aid and funding from international allies, which reinforced the illusion of being a powerful country. To control the military and avoid an insurrection, they kept it divided (army, air force, intelligence, etc.) and the monarch was the sole person in charge of coordinating the different units.

Therefore, these sultans are considered essential figures in keeping their countries working. Finally, to depoliticize people and avoid insurrections, sultans controlled political parties and elections while giving their citizens economic benefits and social aids. These strategies, combined with political surveillance, repression and control of the media kept the population completely passive for years.

 Control and censorship

 The organization IFEX-TMG (International Freedom of Expression Exchange-Tunisian Monitoring Group) carried out annual field missions during the last period of Ben Ali’s regime to assess the way the former president used the media as a tool to repress the country. According to IFEX-TMG reports, he established a total control as the government supervised the whole process of creating each piece of news; the content of the publications, the ownership of the outlets and even the way publications, radio stations and television channels financed their business.

They found that the state reserved the right to offer licenses for the creation of private broadcasters and it controlled the registration of print media. Creating a legal media outlet was impossible without first acquiring state permission, which was obviously denied outright if the government considered that the new publication could act against its interests.

The legal media was also strictly controlled and the content remained closely checked. Under the legal framework, there were several bans on offending the president, disturbing public order –in other words, calling for action against the government- and in general on any content which went even slightly against regime’s interests.

In order to ensure that only the approved information went to the streets, Ben Ali used a combination of censorship –internet censoring was particularly relevant, with many websites being blocked, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube-, the closure and confiscation of the disallowed media and the harassment of critical voices.

As IFEX-TMG repeatedly denounced, independent journalists as well as human rights defenders –whose activities overlap in many cases- saw their phone lines cut, received anonymous threats, were assaulted, attacked and even imprisoned for questioning the regime’s practices. Government then would create a smoke curtain in those cases charging journalists and activists to completely different offenses –such as attacks on security agents, use of drugs etc. – to prevent the international community from questioning their heavy handed practices.

This is was the case of well-known writers like Slim Boukhdhir, Mohammed Abbou, Christophe Boltanski and Riad Ben Fadhel.

Even within the media’s financial side, the state threads could be found as well. The state distributed the system of subsidies and controlled the public sector advertisement, what in practice means that the independent voices found it very difficult to fund themselves as government and public aids were inaccessible for them, let alone regular advertisements.

 These various measures were extremely useful during many decades. But in 2010, a series of factors made this perfect model to explode. While the economy was growing, the wealth was being distributed unfairly: Ben Ali, his family and his circle enjoyed fabulous holidays and built splendorous new mansions, when the increasing young population found themselves well-educated but bored and unemployed. For this reason, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, the military refused to over their fellow countrymen to defend an obviously corrupted system.

 Besides, the penetration of the internet was inevitably growing in the last decade. The United Nations estimates that in 2000, the internet was used by the 2.8% of the population. In 2009, the percentage was 34.1%. This allowed an increasing number of people to express themselves in forums and blogs, which eventually created a virtual but fierce opposition. According to Belhassem Handous, from Tunisia Reporters Without Borders, these platforms of relative free speech were essential for the subsequent revolts. 

 Revolution: old and new problems

 Paradoxically, and despite all these signs, the Jasmine Revolution took everybody aback. Even once it started, just a few voices saw the great impact it would have on the country, on the region and on the international order in general. German freelance journalist Sarah Mersch, based in Tunis and working for ARD and DW, said there was no outlet in Germany asking for news from Tunisia, as it was thought to be something irrelevant and temporary.

The first days of the revolution were characterized by confusion, agitation and fear. As radio, television and newspaper outlets were still beholden to Ben Ali, photographers, reporters and even citizens used blogs, social networks and internet outlets in general to publish what was happening in the streets.

 Progressively, censorship started disappearing and outlets which had traditionally been loyal to Ben Ali changed their editorial lines and joined the new airs of freedom. Dozens of new radios and newspapers sprung up, as a genuine thirst to inform spread all over the country.

 However, as Mersch points out, there was a lack of coordination among the new and old media and a sense of mistrust from the population: “Media freedom didn’t bring immediate stability. There was too much information out, sometimes contradictory, and people didn’t know if they could trust in those (journalists) who had been supporting Ben Ali for so long”.

Although Tunisian journalists now try to produce proper journalism rather than propaganda, the population has lost the faith in the profession, as many journalists regret. In fact, one of the main problems that the country needs to face, highlighted by the media centre Deutsche Welle Akademie during the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, held in Tunis in May, it is the fact that its reporters lack professional training.

 Tunisian journalists went through three processes very quickly and they were not prepared to do so: they worked in a dictatorship, they covered a revolution and at this time, they see the necessity to inform in a democracy, which is something beyond their experience and formal education.

 In order to tackle this difficulty to reach a democratic society with democratic media, organizations such as IFEX-TMG, ANHRI (Arabic Network for Human Rights Information) and the SNJT (National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists) offered a number of workshops, classes and seminars to train journalists and and provide them with basic skills and abilities throughout 2012.

 Virginie Jouan, IFEX-TMG chair, stresses that “in the country, the mainstream of the journalists have not developed a critical thought or political background. Education in this point is vital to create independent but solid media”.

 Nevertheless, Jouan warns that the major problem in the country in terms of media freedom is related to the lack of regulation. The two draft press law, law 115 and 116, have been drawn up, but their implementation remains stalled. Therefore, charges against journalists are still being tried under the old Press Law, which date back to 1975.

 Reporters Without Borders – Tunisia also considers that developing the legal framework is an essential point in the creation of free media in the country. The organization strongly believes that the reasons beyond this unwillingness of putting into practice democratic laws lies in the fact that there are still many political and economic interests involved. Influential people within the media and business, who are linked to the former regime, are lobbying for the effective implementation of measures that would allow them to retain their power. The current government, the Islamist party Enhada, has learnt from Ben Ali’s regime and seems reluctant to relinquish a certain control over the press as they look ahead to the next elections. Another essential point curtailing the path towards democracy is the lack of authority to regulate media freedom.

 Finally, there are some concerns about having Islamists in power. Old practices such as censorship, which seemed forgotten after the revolution, have come back. Close to the elections in October 2011, Nessma TV was attacked after it broadcasted the film Persepolis, a critical story about the ascension of the Islamism in Iran. Reporters Without Borders also advise that the current government is censoring contents in terms of sexuality, mainly on the internet.

 Journalists admit that the situation is better than it used to be, but they also acknowledge that the Islamist factor could have curbed progress. Although all the journalists imprisoned have been released and currently there is no one in jail, some media workers still have a sense of fear. Jlali Ali, a Radio Kalima worker, admits that he and his partners received attacks from many sectors: the police, the citizens, and staunch Enhada supporters. He says he doesn’t fear about his life but he does about his physical integrity.

 In fact, and due to the recent and increasing attacks on journalists and writers in the last few months, IFEX-TMG hold a protest on 22 August to condemn a series of arrests and intimidation to journalists as well as they asked the government for more transparency.

 Transition in Tunisia towards a state of democracy has been difficult and slow. Some problems have been solved and liberty is greater than before, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The key is working with patience, effort and willingness. Otherwise, Tunisia could retrace its path. As an advertisement from Reporters Without Borders Tunisia reads:

 “Now free. But until when?”


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