The recent assault against an Aljazeera reporter in Tunisia was not the first of its kind and may well be not the last. Mohamed Bakkali was aware of the risks involved in his profession when he set out to work as a field reporter. He has been assaulted several times but he carried his duty of reporting stories, undeterred by the hazards it meant to his life.
Assaulted for Reporting
When Bakkali speaks about the last assault against him in Tunisia his mind goes to the tensions and outrage that gripped the country in the wake of the protests in front of American embassy over the anti-Islam film ‘Innocence of Muslims.’ He says that these tensions still hang over the country, even after the protests stopped, noting that it was in this context that a group of masked policemen beat him last month while he was reporting the siege imposed by security forces on a mosque that hosted Salafist leader, Abu Iyad.
"I was there to cover what was going on. Police cordoned off the place and asked me to stay away. I introduced myself to them and said that I am a journalist, assuring them that my work won't disturb their measures. As we talked this over, a policeman in plain clothes pushed me and then another masked officer started to beat me with a baton," says Bakkali.
A spokesperson for the Tunisian Interior Minister, Khalid Tarush, officially apologised in a phone call to Bakkali after news of his assault was circulated and a video posted online. He also received another call from the spokesperson of the government and Human Rights Minister, Samir Dilu and met with the Minister of Interior, Ali Arid who reiterated his apologies, pledging to hold the perpetrators to account.
"This is an isolated incident and does not represent the government's official line. It is more of an individual act by police elements who have not assimilated the values of the revolution. I think, though, that there must be accountability to maintain the good image of the country, to prevent the revolution from derailing and to have a good relationship between media and the state. Impunity will only lead to more tensions between media and the state and trigger fresh violations. The state will encourage further assaults if it chooses to turn a blind eye to them," adds Bakkali.
With a note of regret, Bakkali speaks about the "lack of solidarity inside media community in Tunisia which is amply clear in the national syndicate's sidelining of the assault against me, and its failure to issue a statement condemning it."
Bakkali comments on the democratic transformation taking place in the country, saying that "in all democratic transitions there expected to be a relative chaos, lack of security as well as a decline in sate power. Under these circumstances, journalists' tasks are rendered difficult not so much by police aggression but by the general climate of insecurity which makes it possible and acceptable that unknown groups can assault journalists."
“The assailants are generally political formations that use these methods to intimidate and control journalists and employ violent elements to morally and physically coerce them. They do so because they are against the editorial of the journalists' institutions and think it right to target them as a kind of reprisal," Bakkali asserts.
The government and Media Challenge
Bakkali contends that relations between the state and the press are strained and that the two sides are locked in a mutual misunderstanding. "In the absence of dialogue, both parties chose the way of conflict and confrontation to deal with each other and are both to blame for the deadlock. The government does not know how to properly manage the media sector, passing improvised regulations and making appointments without consultation with trade unions and relevant professional bodies. The latter are so politicised that they behave like opposition political parties intent upon embarrassing the government and denigrating it in the national and international public eye instead of working to preserve freedom and the gains achieved by media," he underlines.
Bakkali suggests a solution to the current problem in which "the government ceases to pass improvised laws and seek common ground with the media community through compromise and partnership. Professional bodies, from their side, have to separate between political and purely professional concerns, and the two sides must start an unconditional dialogue in order to reach a win-win deal that values freedom and serves the interests of media and the country."
Press Ethical violations
"It is a bitter irony that the increase in freedom is accompanied by a decline in the ethical standards of media. This paradox is largely due to the absence of long standing traditions that nurture respect for media ethics because of decades of dictatorships. For it is not plausible that journalists can go about infringing on the private life of people in the name of freedom, or insult and defame them. Journalists should exercise self-censure, otherwise there should be independent and trustworthy bodies that decide in matters of media bias and lack of neutrality," Bakkali adds.
Bakkali has been the target of many assaults throughout his seven-year career. The most dangerous of these was when his own government revoked his work permit in Morocco in 2009, along with another colleague called Anes Bin Saleh. The withdrawal of accreditation documents for two years was followed by closing down the Aljazeera bureau in Rabat. Bakkali left the country after that.
The government did not cite any reasons for its decision but behind the scenes people said that it was due to "tarnishing the image of the country.” Bakkali insists that his reporting reflected the real situation inside the country while the government wanted him to sing its praise. And when he refused, “it sent me in exile. Although I am not banned from returning to the country, the government made this impossible by depriving me of work."
Bakkali says that it was when he was reporting from the border between Libya and Tunisia that he faced the most serious danger. He was injured when Ghaddafi brigades attacked the Wazan border crossing which was controlled by the revolutionary fighters inside Tunisia.
His work in Tunisia is also not without its risks, and he has been physically assaulted by unknown people in Sidi Buzeid when stone-throwing assailants attacked the car of Aljazeera crew.