Tunisian media enjoy newfound freedoms
By Houda Trabelsi for Magharebia in Tunis – 27/01/11
Under the old regime, Tunisian journalists who took risks faced censorship and arrest, while the less daring chose to comply with strict rules. Now, with the removal of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, some face problems handling freedom, while the others have a hard time relinquishing control.
"Since the flight of the former president, I noticed a complete 180 in the media discourse. Each followed its own agenda. There was no one to monitor what was being propagated and no definite direction," Rajaa Al-Shayeb said.
However, some journalists were sceptical, expressing unease about the performance of news organisations.
"Though Tunisian media broke free from its shackles and though the public discourse became closer to citizens' everyday issues, concerns continue to exist. Conditions may slip to an even worse situation than they were before, if icons of the previous ruling party take over power," Houda Ben Belkassem said.
Mourad al-Mazni said, "I think the Tunisian media has a good chance to prove it was liberated and to regain people's confidence, especially that many of the previously tabooed topics are now being discussed candidly."
Maha Al-Khamousi said, "Frankly, the Tunisian media has become closer to citizens' concerns. It is being very transparent. We no longer see acts of alienation. All intellectual groups get to express themselves freely in the media."
"After the arid years that media in Tunisia sustained, it finally got its long-sought freedom. However, all media institutions need to be cautious about that freedom. Without the necessary warranties, there is a chance it might lapse," said Neji Bghouri, head of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT).
Bghouri added that replacing the old journalism law with a new one is a certain requirement at this juncture. He also said that the External Communication Agency must be closed, adding that the old regime rewarded those who followed its commands and punished those who disobeyed.
"We think that closing down the ministry of information will not solve the problem," Haqaiq journalist Walid Ahmed Ferchichi said.
"We need to re-formulate the journalism code, review the profession regulations, grant SNJT full powers as an independent institution so it could perform its duties, namely defending Tunisian journalists' rights. Only SNJT has the right of issuing journalists cards. Only it can define the profession of journalism, away from all confusion, especially after the numerous violations we learned of over the past years, such as granting such cards to secretary generals of political parties or many outsiders," he added.
Ferchichi also brought up the problem of issuing credentials and legal protection to online journalists.
"We can confidently say that the new era can sustain them all. It is no exaggeration to claim that setting the media free and restoring the public's confidence in media is the actual safety valve against political, social or economic quakes," Ferchichi said.
"Tunisian media was in a state of chaos during the early days of the uprising. However, the interim government managed to keep that newly-gained freedom in check and even harnessed it for its own good. The national TV channel only gave up the number 7, but continued to dim information," Mahib Al-Mohamadi said.
Fatine Hafsia of Nationale TV said that Tunis 7 tried to change its coverage just before the regime fell, "but it was too late. January 14th was an exceptional day for the media, compared to January 13th, for instance," she said.
"However, those in charge of the newscast continue to pull the media back. Unconsciously and under the impact of the political shock, they maintained their pro-regime conservative tone," Hafsia alleged.
"As many colleagues in the profession noticed the superficiality of the media coverage, we decided to place them right before their historic responsibility. We refused any censorship over the reports we compiled. That was the case with the report I put together on the protests on the Tunisian streets and on the presence of the former governing party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, in the present government," Hafsia said.
She added that her network created talk shows, aired political debates and gave voice to citizens for the first time.
"I think the concept of changing state-owned media might take some time, though not long, since the majority of journalists at the newscast department on the national Tunisian TV channel want the change," she said.
Mohamed Ali Souissi, a journalist at Mosaic FM, which belongs to the former president's brother-in-law Belhassan Trabelsi, told Magharebia that journalists "were shackled" under Ben Ali's regime but the situation has improved dramatically.
"After the uprising in Tunisia, all manacles placed on the Tunisian media were lifted. This is the real chance for the Tunisian media to prove its efficiency and to restore people's confidence in it, after years of distrust. Journalists, however, need to realise that freedom of speech is a responsibility, before all else, and so must be handled carefully," Souissi said.
Amal Al-Shahed, an activist and presenter on the national TV channel, said, "It is time we regained our viewers' trust, after they abandoned us for foreign channels in pursuit of the truth."
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