Tunisian media in turmoil in the post revolution era

The downfall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 has not put an end to repression of the media in Tunisia.

Tunisian media: between the devil and the deep blue sea

Last year's revolution promised a new dawn for the Tunisian press, but the reality suggests that journalists are struggling to work freely as the government attempts to maintain control over the media.

Mohamed Bakkali, an experience of media freedom in Tunisia

Aljazeera reporter, Mohamed Bakkali has witnessed the recent development of the Tunisian media. Here he talks to DCMF about the difficulties for the press and his suggestions for the future.

Tunisian media under the shroud of government control

It has been more than a year since the Tunisian uprising began, but a recent string of events indicate that there is still an ongoing revolution in the Tunisian media.

Journalists discuss the media in Tunisia

While the quest for freedom and dignity characterised the revolution in Tunisia, questions have been raised over whether the current media climate reflects these values. DCMF spoke to a number of journalists to get their take on the situation.


Tunisian media in turmoil in the post revolution era

Tunisian media: between the devil and the deep blue sea

Mohamed Bakkali, an experience of media freedom in Tunisia

Tunisian media under the shroud of government control

Journalists discuss the media in Tunisia
Following a nationwide strike by Tunisian journalists, the government has vowed to implement decrees to guarantee press freedom and independent regulation
Journalists are striking over the ruling party's attempts to control the media and the lack of press freedom in Tunisia

The Tunisian revolution lasted four weeks, between the months of December 2010 and January 2011.  It led to the downfall of the former ruler, Ben Ali, now living in exile in Saudi Arabia.  Many would have preferred to see him punished, but the end of his 23-year dictatorship was seen as victory enough by most Tunisians.

Over a year and a half later, Tunisia is still affected by demonstrations and protests against the newly installed leading party, Ennahda, despite it being democratically elected.  This ‘resistance movement’ which was banned for years for its apparent Islamism, won the Constituent Election only a matter of months after it was no longer outlawed.

The Tunisian media, fresh with hopes for a free press, has begun to despair in the wake of Ennahda’s electoral success.  The relationship between the press and the leading party has not been good, evidenced by protests against the appointment of media chiefs who are deemed as having been too close to the former President.

The adoption of a new press law which “criminalises all attacks on the sacred” has prompted concerns over independent journalism and the spectre of censorship.

The internet has not been spared either, and the wind of liberty which blew throughout the country during the revolution and contributed to the significant development of social media in Tunisia, seems to have passed over.

Is the Tunisian media undergoing transition itself, or is it leading a revolution?  This, among others, is one of the questions we address here.

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Journalists from the press group, Dar Assabah, protesting on October 2 (AFP)

Tunisian media is undergoing a change, but it is still too soon to say whether the change is entirely positive or negative.  However, what is clear is that the relationship between the recently elected government and media workers is severely strained.

The last few months have been turbulent for the Tunisian media because of constant clashes between the government and journalists. The closure of the independent media authority, strikes, censorship, arrests and brutal attacks on journalists  meant that the dream of  a free Tunisian press began to seem even more distant.

Free speech stifled in new draft constitution

The latest blow to the Tunisian media was when the country’s parliament approved amendments  to  a new press code that restricts free speech. Even though these amendments are not yet implemented, many journalists are extremely concerned  over its impact on the local press.

“The draft law will represent a serious setback to the democratic transition in Tunisia,” said Hatem Salhi, a journalist at Radio Chambi FM. “It will be a huge blow to Tunisians, who suffered enormously from censorship and restrictions on their freedom of speech under Ben Ali’s regime. We urge the Tunisian Parliament to reject it and to respect, protect and fulfil hard-fought freedoms for all Tunisians.”

In a letter to the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, Human Rights Watch urged the members of the assembly to modify the “articles of the draft constitution made public by the National Constituent Assembly on August 8, 2012 that undermine human rights, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, the principle of non-discrimination and freedom of thought and conscience.”

One of the most controversial articles in the draft constitution is article 3 as it blankets censorship under the name of attacking “the sacred,” but fails to provide a clear definition of what is constituted by the term.. It states: “The State guarantees freedom of belief and religious practice and criminalises all attacks on the sacred.”  Press freedom organisations and media groups are viewing this article with concern as it instigates fear among the masses. Moreover, non-conforming views should not be a reason for imprisonment and torture.

The draft law violates the international human rights standards and imposes illegitimate and excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.  Journalists like Salhi say that “the draft law is likely to lead to self-censorship under fear of imprisonment.”

Many journalists and bloggers felt suffocated during 23 years of repressive rule under former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Since the outbreak of the revolution, reforms are underway, but many feel the need to continue fighting.

Raidh Guerfelli, a prominent  activist for 20 years, has been struggling to bring justice and freedom to Tunisia. When interviewed by DCMF, he said: “Of course there is change; no one can do what Ben Ali did to us. We weren’t given this freedom but we had to take it from them through force and fighting, but does that mean that everything is alright now? Absolutely not!” 

Is the Tunisian press undergoing reform?

The presence of independent media was virtually non-existent under Ben Ali’s regime but recent appointments such as the posting of Lotfi Touati as head of the Tunisian media agency, Dar Assabah has disappointed and angered many local journalists.

“The Prime Minister appointed Touati without consulting any journalist, media groups or even members of Dar Assabah,” said Lila Weslaty, a journalist at the popular blogging platform NawaatDozens of journalists went on a strike protesting Touati’s appointment as the head of Dar Assabah because they don’t consider him to be the right choice due to his close association with the current ruling Ennahda party. “On one hand, they are speaking of reform and on the other hand, they appointed someone from the Ben Ali regime which is totally wrong and unacceptable,” she added.

Zied El Helni, an executive board member of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, also denounced the recent appointments of heads of media organisations because they are too closely involved with the ruling party. “All of this is a big joke! The government is trying to control Dar Assabah by carefully choosing who they put in power. All of this contradicts the point of revolution as we fought to gain freedom.”

The Tunisian government has denied accusations of attempting to stifle the local press, but the recent string of events in the country paints rather a different, and a more dismal picture.

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Director of Nessma TV Nabil Karoui leaves a courthouse on April 19 after his trial for "insulting sacred values" with the broadcast of Iranian film 'Persepolis.' (AFP)

 

Since the government has expressed the hope to secure the internet in Tunisia, most of the people concerned have pointed out a “step backward”.

“Now internet is absolutely free in Tunisia. There is a control but we don’t know much about it” told Olivia Gré the representative of Reporters without Borders in Tunis. She is getting ready to celebrate the International Press Freedom Day.

For her it’s “normal” that there is a control especially on terrorism and pedophile threads, “but Tunisia should have a strong regulation first and then would be able to implement measures”.

On the 3rd of February 2012, Reporters without Borders pointed out “a risk of regression”.

Since June 2011, the Tunisian Agency for Internet, the censorship body under Ben Ali has been sued by three lawyers who have asked for the immediate banned of pornographic sites. Two months later, the Supreme Court ordered the TAI to control all the websites. The judgment was appealed last February.

Sex scandals have become a hot button issue for Tunisian Medias.

On the 8th of March, the chief editor of the newspaper Tounssia Nasredine Ben Saida was fined 1000 dinars for publishing a nude picture.

Nabil Karoui, the director of Nessma TV was sued for “violating sacred values” after his station aired the film Persepolis. The verdict should be announced on the 3rd of May.

Ammar 404

Ammar 404 (the symbol which stood for blocked content under Ben Ali era) could show up again. “People justify the censorship as if there isn’t any other solution. Instead of blocking websites we could leave it to an internet provider” said Sarah Ben Hamadi, journalist and blogger for the website Tekiano.com.

Reporters without Borders has warned against risk of filters on the internet: “Public sites could also be blocked and it could have consequences on the economy and a slower connection could prevent foreign companies to invest in Tunisia”.

But since the 15th of August a failure in the system has blocked the filter himself, “we can access pornographic sites and the 5 Facebook pages banned by the Military Court are available”, the TAI added: “We don’t have technical facilities and money to filter these pages” but they assured having cut all the connections from the filters placed outside their building.

Intercepting Legal Data

“The Tunisian Agency for the Internet has played a crucial role under Ben Ali but now it’s different we will have less control, freedom comes first” said Mongi Thameur, cabinet chief of the Minister of Information.

But on the 5th of April, the government has announced that they want to secure internet. “We are studying a new text, Tunisia is a democratic country and all democratic countries intercept data legally”. According to what Mongi Thameur has told us “Legal data interception” means only following questionable case.

For the moment in Tunisia no legal texts evoke cybercrime or pedo-pornography. “We need a text to define cyber criminality, nothing is defined. Without a text nothing would guarantee that we will not step backward” said the Tunisian Agency for Internet which defends its restructuration and organized 4M Tunis.

Restructuration vs Dissolution

“The government wants to restructure the TAI his way … but it has to be terminated” said Khelil Ben Osman, co-founder of the Tunisian Association for Digital Freedom.

Founded on the 15th of January 2011 the day after the fall of Ben Ali, this association fights for digital liberties in order to reinforce fundamental liberties”. The association points out also the structure of the TAI, according to them all the data are going through only one access.

“Technically we can do whatever we want, we can even cut the connection, we won’t do it because we want actually to create more access” said the spoke person of the TAI. The TAI used to belong to the “Agence Tunisienne de la Communication Exterieure” but they insist: “they don’t have any obligations to the government”. 

Since the 14th of January the TAI is not financed by the states anymore and they are now trying to give a new image. The Agency has a new director, a new logo and is planning to change its name.

Founded in 1996 and tarnished by Ammar 404, The TAI struggles now for a free internet access in Tunisia, for no censorship and it’s waiting for a restructuration.

But on the other hand the government wants to adopt another option: the dissolution.

By owning 18% of the TAI the government has not the power to enforce the judgment against the agency. “But we can ask the banks which own shares in the TAI to ask for a dissolution (The STB owned 19%, Banque de l’Habitat owned 5%), these are all public banks”, noticed Mongi Thameur, “In the future internet will be provided by a National Center for Internet to the official administration, for private use internet will be provided by Global Net, Hexabyte or Orange and regarding the international websites it will be controlled by the Tunisian government, this is for technically reasons”.

Useful links :

http://fr.rsf.org/tunisie-filtrage-de-l-internet-en-tunisie-03-02-2012,41802.html

http://filtrage.ati.tn/

http://www.tekiano.com

http://www.mincom.tn/index.php?id=11&L=3

http://www.atln.info/

http://www.atln.info/colloque-4m-tunis/275

Julie Schneider is freelance journalist and correspondent for the French weekly magazine Le Point. She also edits the bi-monthly economic website L'Economiste Maghrébin. Previously, she has freelanced in Ramallah and Beirut.

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Mohamed Bakkali who has witnessed the relationship between the government and the Tunisian media in recent months.

 

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."

Democratic Transition

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.

Way out

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.

Repeated Assaults

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.

 

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Journalist Saeeda Buhilal keeps smiling despite the problems faced by members of her profession in Tunisia

 

Media in Tunisia is at a historical crossroads with more voices calling for a "media revolution" in order to regain lost freedoms of expression, which they say the new government is trying to limit. 

This is happening after the country elected its first ever democratic government and the emergence of a large number of news outlets.

On the other side of the national media scene, there are some people who claim that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are protected under the new leaders, blaming the remnants of the former regime for sparing no efforts to downplay the gains achieved after the revolution.

Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) interviewed the following journalists from inside and outside the country to gauge their opinions on this sticky issue:

Nabil Rihani, Aljazeera journalist and producer

There is no doubt that public liberties in Tunisia are making an unprecedented leap forward. This leap is manifest in good-quality journalism currently available in the media landscape as well as in the huge number of newly created news institutions. You just need to go to the nearest newsstand to see a plethora of news headlines, and a wide spectrum of newspapers, some which are independent and some which are following party lines. These newspapers also vary from extreme right to extreme left, and there are no taboo topics they cannot cover. As a matter of fact they teem with articles critical of all parties, including the president, prime minster and all members of the cabinet.

This does not mean, though, that media has nothing to complain about. One of the major challenges facing media is that state apparatus is still full of influential people from the former regime, even though it is run by pro-revolution political parties.

This situation is compounded by a lack of governance expertise on the part of the parties in power, which were until recently in the opposition camp. These parties have taken decisions which at times seemed equivocal and confusing.

Most assaults against journalists were done under the government of Mohamed Ghanushi which was toppled by the revolution. Later, the number of these violations dropped sharply as the current cabinet denied any relation to them and called for their perpetrators to be held to account. 

While the governing troika, especially the Nahda party, have been accused of attempts to control the media, it has to be said that corrupt senior officials had the upper hand in media as in the security and the judiciary before and after the revolution. They stood against the revolution and its demands for freedom in return for privileges the ousted president conferred upon them.

The government and the journalists' syndicate have revealed the existence of a blacklist of corrupt journalists, yet the list has not been released.

A major hurdle for enhancing media lies in the influence wielded by these corrupt officials who keep their jobs and protect their interests by positioning themselves as advocates of press freedom and independence. They draw upon support from rights groups, political parties and trade unions who are not comfortable with the outcome of the previous elections and the shift in the balance of power that ensued from it.  

The media landscape has not been aided by government policies which were ambiguous and did not have a clear sense of purpose. This lead the government to take rash decisions and make appointments that were not in line with the spirit of the revolution and its goals. So, the government found itself targeted by honest and dishonest critics alike.

Up to now, we know very little about the forthcoming laws which are being drafted to regulate the media sector. But the worry is that they will reflect the new power balance between the different parties instead of meeting the need to have a modern media that can deal properly with this very critical moment in the history of the country.

To conclude, the problems rocking the Tunisian media do not have anything to do with the policies of a particular government, since in democratic systems governments come and go. They have rather everything to do with rampant corruption which has infested state apparatus for decades. These problems are also related to the post-dictatorship dynamics where the government tries to strike a balance between the demands of the revolutions and the state.

The new government wants a tailor-made media 

Mohamed Al-Arusi, editor-in-chief of Tareeq Jadeed newspaper and chair of the liberties commission at the national syndicate of Tunisian journalists.

The revolution inspired Tunisian journalists to respect professional ethics and enhance the role of media. The gains were important in terms of quality and quantity, showing that a transformation of media for the better was within our reach. But our hopes were dashed when the Nahda-led government became a staunch opponent of media, impeding progress to freedom.

Soon it becomes clear that the government wants public media to serve it, promote its image and act as its spokesperson. It therefore appointed to senior positions, journalists who supported the former regime to draw upon the experience in controlling media and preventing the emergence of free press. Worse, it even sought the help of some of these to reform the sector while discrediting the journalists who were against Ben Ali, accusing them of being his cronies.

Together with the reemergence of corrupt journalists, we see that several draft laws which constrained media freedom were submitted to the constitutive council. When power abuse is added to these factors we see that what is between our hands is a recipe for media disaster, worse than in the days of Ben Ali.

Some elements in the government have launched a campaign of incitement against journalists, triggering record violations against them. Those behind these crimes have never been held accountable, including police elements who are expected to protect journalists.

The limits placed on media freedom were behind this year's general strike in  October which sent a potent message to the ruling politicians that journalists are determined to defend freedom of the press against all attempts to control it.

Mohamed Amar, Tunisian journalist

A healthy indicator that media is booming lies in the increase in the number of newspapers and TV and radio stations, which now number over 300 news outlets.  It is also clear in the freedom to express one's opinion and to criticise. Having said that, media is still in a critical situation due to its own internal problems and its ongoing tit-for-tat with a government intent on controlling it under the pretext that it was on good terms with the former regime and should now laud the new leadership's achievements inspite of the current difficult democratic transition.

Saida Abu Hilal, journalist and member of the executive bureau of the national syndicate

Tunisian journalists' motto after the revolution is "no more silence". The fall of the the regime of Ben Ali meant more freedom for journalists who decided to stand up to all attempts to muzzle their voices and put freedom of media and expression in jeopardy.

The revolution saw the coming to life of a flurry of intellectual energy in the media that was translated in the creation of newspapers, electronic websites and TV and radio stations, nurturing and reinforcing the spirit of competition in the sector.

Media people were, though, targeted by smear campaigns lead by parties which want to control the media and others which are afraid that a healthy media would reveal its violations and involvement in corruption.

The provisional government also went out of its way to limit freedom of media by refusing to implement laws aimed at enhancing it and by passing legislations that restrain access to information. Add to that the government's decision to appoint directors of media institutions who are close to it in spite of opposition from media community in Tunisia.

Zeidi Alhani, Tunisian journalist

The media scene in Tunisia has changed a great deal since the outbreak of the revolution. In the past, the media was completely under the control of the executive power, but has now become free and pluralistic. The challenges facing media involve, among other things, the need to build capacities to meet the demands of the new situation and to protect public media institutions from attempts by the government to use them to its ends. Media outlets need also to be guarded against control by the private sector.

On the whole, I think that the entire society has a stake in addressing the problems that weigh heavily on media, and not only journalists. Toward this end, a national media forum should be held with the participation of all political and social forces to agree on a set of principles to preserve and protect freedom of press and expression.

 

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A Tunisian journalist, protesting against restrictions on freedom of the press

 

Ruled with an iron fist by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime between 1987 and 2011, the Tunisian media never used to talk about politics.

When Ben Ali was in power, many media professionals were used to bullying and newspaper closures, secret detention, and orders to leave the country were commonplace.

Media under control

Tunisia’s media lacked freedom then and journalists could not criticise neither the government nor the authorities.

The first state channel Tunis 7, contributed to the regime’s propaganda for twenty-three years. Reports on the presidential activities accounted for most of the media air time and gave rise to exuberant reports, praising Ben Ali.

Others were faced with indirect censorship measures, like the Arabic weekly newspapers Al Maoukif and Mouatinoun. They were also hard to find in kiosks because of pressures on distributors and newsagents to make them unavailable.

Kalima publication never received government’s accreditation to authorise its publications, and so launched an online journal instead.  However, the site is inaccessible in Tunisia without the use of a proxy.

In 2009, on the eve of the fifth term of Ben Ali, the team decided to launch Kalima radio.  With no chance of obtaining a license, the team opted to launch on the internet instead of the Tunisian airwaves.

But its existence was soon threatened. The radio’s headquarters were surrounded by the police and a few days later, the authorities stormed into their offices to seize the equipment.

The leaders of the radio were then accused of "unauthorised computer activity."

The illusion of media pluralism

To reduce the influence of satellite channels on the Tunisian population and counter the proliferation of satellite dishes, the regime launched a highly controlled wave of media liberalisation.

Multiple permissions were granted.

  • Hannibal-TV, the first private TV channel in Tunisia, was started by Naser Larbi in 2005.
  • Nessma TV, the second private television channel launched in 2007. It is owned by the wealthy businessman Nabil Karoui, giving priority to large populations of North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania).

This liberalisation of the media also affected radio:

  • Mosaique FM owned 13% by Belhassen Trabelsi, (brother of deposed president).
  • Zitouna FM radio-religious owned by his son Sakhr El Matri.
  • Shems FM  in 2010, owned by Syrine Ben Ali (Ben Ali's daughter).

The entire media landscape continues to be dominated by the Ben Ali clan as they do everything possible to gain ground and indoctrinate the public through a media which serves their own interests at the expense of the country.

Indeed, due to this obstruction, large numbers of people have turned to satellite channels and to social networks.

After the Tunisian Spring, the media revolution

The downfall of President Ben Ali in January 2011 changed media use trends, but also removed barriers and brought new targets to the aggressive government, which had previously focused primarily on media professionals.

Tunisian media are finally starting to talk about politics, making room for a diversity of viewpoints. The media scene in Tunisia  has expanded to include around 22 radio stations and 10 TV channels, both public and privately owned.

The Tunisian revolution has also had an impact on other media, leading many to reject any guardianship or influence that could threaten their independence. Journalists have been strongly criticising the government’s appointment of new directors for various media outlets, arguing that the postings will weaken freedom of press, despite the pledge of the ruling party, Ennahdha.

The National Union for Tunisian Journalists has severely condemned these appointments. The general secretary of the union, Mohamed Saidi argued that “they are unilateral decisions dominated by the Islamists accused of seeking to control the media”.

The union also stressed the lack of transparency when it comes to appointing journalists, but also when a journalist is made redundant, asking how these decisions are made.

A year and a half after the revolution, Tunisia’s media landscape seems full of shadows and uncertainties. This balance between the hope and promise of a new dawn, and fears over Islamist rulers and a return to the days of Ben Ali represent not only the difficult tightrope for Tunisian media, but for many, the people of Tunisia as a whole.

 

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Tunisian journalists on strike wore stickers that read "censored" to highlight their quest to ensure press freedom

 

Following widespread industrial action by Tunisian journalists on Wednesday, the government has promised to implement two decrees which guarantee press freedom and the regulation of audiovisual media.

The decrees were passed last year, but had not yet been enacted, leading to growing tension between members of the media and the government. 

Agence Tunisia Afrique Presse (TAP) cited an announcement from the Prime Minister’s office, saying: "The coalition government has decided to implement decrees 115 and 116 regulating the information sector.”

The implementation of the decrees, which had been one of the striking journalists’ major demands, had been blocked by the coalition government’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, which has been accused of trying to control the media in the wake of last year’s revolution.

An authority initially charged with introducing these reforms, was shut down in July, blaming government censorship for its failure and prompting concerns among journalists who saw the move as another indication of the ruling party's intentions.

Decree 115 clarifies journalists’ rights and prevents “restrictions on the freedom to disseminate information,” while decree 116 introduces an independent authority responsible for issuing radio and television licenses and guaranteeing “the freedom of audiovisual communication.”

The announcement came a day after the strike, which saw state television and radio channels severely reduce their broadcasts and join representatives from other media outlets as part of civil action organised by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT).

Strong support for journalists

According to the union, more than 90% of Tunisia’s journalists took part in the strike, chanting “Dar Assabah, the red line,” “Freedom of press, foundation of democracy,” “The radio is public, not governmental,” “Rehabilitation of the fourth estate,” and other slogans.  Others chose to cover their mouths with stickers that read “censored.”

Doha Centre for Media Freedom supported the striking journalists, urging the government to ensure that press freedom and independence be guaranteed and that a strong  separation between administrative and editorial appointments is implemented.

Wednesday's strike received international support and was attended by representatives of the International Federation of Journalists and the Federation of Arab Journalists.

A senior member of the SNJT, Zied El Heni welcomed the government’s announcement, but asked why it had taken so long to arrive at what many see as a clear and simple decision.

“We regret that so much time has been lost.  We could have avoided many problems and disputes for the sector and for the country,” he said.

Government claims

The government has argued that it is conducting a cleanup operation in the media industry, trying to remove figures of authority and influence who were members of the previous regime.  They have also complained about what they perceive to be a relentless campaign of criticsm serving the interests of their political opponents.

However, following the strike, a government statement said that it is open to dialogue and is willing "to respond positively to all the issues involving the information sector, and those which concern the social situation in certain media establishments."

Ongoing tensions

Trouble between journalists and the government has been brewing for months now, as media outlets have consistently complained about the ruling party’s attempts to exert editorial control.  Appointments to high profile positions at media outlets have been vehemently opposed by journalists, who want to maintain independence.

The most prominent case has been the appointment of the director of the state-owned Dar Assabah press group, where six journalists have been on hunger strike since October 12.

One of the journalists on hunger strike, Lamia Cherif, was rushed to hospital on Wednesday, with reports suggesting that she remained conscious, but appeared to be very weak and had to be put on a drip.

 

Source: DCMF, TAP, AFP

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Websites of state TV and radio outlets highlighted the strike which took place on Wednesday

 

Tunisian journalists have expressed their displeasure at what they view as the government’s attempts to control the media, by taking part in a day-long strike on Wednesday.

The strike was called by the National Union of Tunisia Journalists (SNJT) on September 25 following the refusal of the government to meet journalists’ demands and the appointment to senior positions within the media of close allies of the governing Ennahda party.

This is the first strike to be organised by the union, and officials said it came about after all avenues of discussion with government authorities had been exhausted.
SNJT chairwoman, Néjiba Hamrouni has consistently spoken out against the government, and blamed them for a "slowdown in the reform of the sector and threats to freedom of speech and the press in Tunisia.”

Various media outlets participated in the strike, including state TV and radio broadcasters.

Agence Tunis Afrique Presse published the list of thirteen demands put forward by the union, which range from demands to ensure that freedom of expression, of the press and of creation without any reservation are established in the new constitution, to other more specific details regarding working conditions at various outlets.

The State Radio broadcaster, Radio Tunisienne, carried a report on its website explaining that the station had participated in the strike to show solidarity and support for the media sector and for press freedom. The station also chose only to run news headlines, and broadcast a number of programmes dedicated to the subject of press freedom.  The statement concluded by asserting that freedom of the press is not only important for journalists, but is a right for all citizens and should be guaranteed as such.

State television channel Al Wataniya Tunisia 1 also announced that its evening news broadcast would only feature headlines and no anchor would appear during the transmission.

Support for cause of press freedom

Earlier this month, the Arab Journalists’ Union called on all journalists in the region to support the “legitimate claims” the Tunisian media are making, arguing that more needs to be done to provide protection to journalists in the country.

Journalist unions further afield have also expressed solidarity with the strike, including the National Union of Journalists from the UK and Ireland, who delivered a letter to the Tunisian embassy in London, urging the government to separate editorial and administrative responsibilities.  Yesterday they tweeted their support for their peers in Tunisia:

Others have taken to social networks to express their support for the strike: 

 

DCMF expresses support for Tunisian journalists

Doha Centre for Media Freedom expressed solidarity with the journalists on strike, and echoed their calls for a separation between editorial and political appointments as well as a guaranteed free media.

"DCMF supports the journalists if Tunisia, some of whom are also on hunger strike, for their efforts to establish true press freedom in their country."

"The centre insists that representatives of journalists and civil society should be involved in providing nominations for public media appointments.  The new government in Tunisia seems to be operating with an old minset, similar to its predecessor, as far as controlling state media is concerned, and DCMF urges them to adopt a new strategy in this regard."

The centre recently published a special report focusing on the development of the Tunisian media following the revolution which deposed former Prime Minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, highlighting the strained relationship between journalists and their government.

 

Source: DCMF, TAP

 

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