Reporting in Today's Tunisia

Reporting in Today's Tunisia

An Al Jazeera English journalist discusses the changes brought about to the media landscape since the Jasmine Revolution began.
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Photo: Proestors in Tunisia

It was amazing and a little daunting to cover Tunisia in the weeks after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was pushed from power by his people.

People have found their voices, and, after years of living under a police state, everybody has something to say. They are calling for change not only with their political leadership, but also with their journalists.

I met one group of young Tunisians who had been friends for years, but said that this was the first time they had dared to discuss politics together.

Until the uprising, most of the country’s youth barely knew the name of the prime minister, they said. Everything revolved around the cult of the president, and people stuck to safe topics like football or music.

Now, the young generation is debating the merits of a parliamentary system and the rewriting of the national constitution.

As a journalist, it was particularly moving to travel to the centre-west of the country, the marginalised and poverty-stricken region where the revolution began.

In towns like Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, the people have been ignored not only by the international media, but also by the media within their own country. Prosperous seaside towns are given a disproportionately significant amount of airtime, while poorer regions are overlooked.

Yet during the revolt, the people overcame their invisibility by using social media to get their stories out.

Media was not just a tool for the protesters; it was also a driving force behind the revolt. If national media reported on local grievances in a fair way from the beginning, people would have not sought to fight the system in quite the same way.

Instead, when they saw that state media was not reporting on what was happening, people simply switched the station to watch international news networks like Al Jazeera or France 24. Or they logged on to Facebook and played an active role in news-gathering themselves, by posting, sharing or simply viewing videos or photos.

Even now, with Tunisian media slow to move to the beat of the new era, people are continuing to look to international networks and social media to share what is happening in the centre of the country.

When we visited the towns where the uprising began, everyone wanted to tell their stories to Al Jazeera. Finally, journalists had a physical presence in these towns, and the locals had hard-earned freedom of expression, now that they were no longer being spied on by the secret police.

Some people are so desperate to speak to the media that they will even resort to violence. When Al Jazeera Arabic was trying to interview the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi in the courtyard of the family home, one neighbour was so determined to speak about his own family tragedy that he climbed on the roof above and threatened to throw bricks if he was not given an interview. He did throw one but no one was hurt!

Journalists working in state media will have to work hard to earn back the trust that they have lost. It was heartening to meet so many Tunisian journalists who, though they have been part of the state apparatus for years, are eager to make the most of their newly won freedom of expression.

Some of them are reaching out to the bloggers, something that would have been unthinkable until January 14. For the first time, the older generation is looking to the youth for inspiration.

The role that media played in the uprising has clearly left its mark on the next generation.

Many young Tunisians told me they want to be journalists, and are passionate and outspoken about the role they believe media should play in their society. Professionals in their 20s, who work in other fields, have become casual journalists, contributing to the many up-and-coming news websites that have sprung up, as well as developing new ones.

For foreign media, in contrast to the situation before January 14, the Tunisian authorities have opened the doors to journalists since Ben Ali’s departure. While Al Jazeera faced some isolated restrictions on filming, including when police were beating protesters on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in late January, we have been given extensive freedom to cover the country.

Still, there is much work to be done. Lucas Mebrouk Dolega, a French photographer for the European Press Photo Agency, died after he was struck on the head by a tear gas grenade on January 14. Witnesses allege police shot him deliberately. Such incidents are yet to be investigated.

And even now, some journalists are still facing violence and intimidation in their work, particularly as various political groups compete for influence as Tunisia moves shakily on the path to democratic reform.

Selim Slimi, a journalist for GlobalNet, was beaten by union members last week, as he tried to report on a protest against their political position.

“In the post-Ben Ali Tunisia, repression continues,” he wrote.

The metamorphosis of Tunisia’s media sphere has a long way to go, but with the new generation playing such an energising role, the new media landscape will be a dynamic one.

Yasmine Ryan is an online journalist for Al Jazeera English.

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