Rumours swirl around Tunisia
By Houda Trabelsi for Magharebia in Tunis – 07/01/11
Gangs of thugs are entering homes to kill and burgle people. The tap water is so polluted that people queue for bottled refreshments. The ex-president's wife threatens revenge from abroad.
Rumours like these have been rife in Tunisia since the January 14th ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Some of them scare people, causing them to stay indoors and cease their daily activities.
"Such rumours make me laugh since they really mock the Tunisian people's intelligence," Lamia Biltaid said. "Such Hollywood rumours did not and will not scare the sons of Tunisia, who will not waver in their pursuit of true freedom."
The gossip is a way to absorb Tunisians' anger at the former ruling family, some observers believe. One of them is a story of an alleged death of Imad Trabelsi, Leila Ben Ali's brother.
Some rumours, such as the burning down of a synagogue in the south, were even broadcast by international news outlets.
Roger Bismuth, leader of the Jewish community in Tunisia, dispelled the claims, saying that "there is no synagogue in Hamma in [the province of] Gabes, south of Tunisia".
"There is a tomb that holds the grave of a Jewish priest which has been a visiting site," he said, adding that "a kiosk for guarding 'the tomb' has been vandalised and some chairs stolen".
"There has not been, at any time, an incident whereby Jews have been the subject of attacks or even insulting comments throughout the revolution," said Bismuth, whose community includes 1,600 people.
"Such rumours aim at creating a state of turbulence between Tunisians and Tunisian Jews," said Perez Trabelsi, head of Ghariba Synagogue in Djerba. "We will not leave Tunisia, and whoever is behind this wants to spread chaos."
According to psychiatrist Abdelwaheb Mahjoub, "rumours are usually used in the service of someone in order to get a message across or to solidify a certain principle". He alleged that some of them have been used by the police to convince people that they cannot live without security.
"Normal people play a role as well in spreading and amplifying such rumours so as to justify their own fears and worries," he added.
According to journalist Hayat Ghanmi, "rumours have contributed in recent events, especially after January 14th, to providing a fertile ground for some journalists and media outlets for the sake of fascination or even in search of truth."
She emphasised that the role of the media in providing accurate news and debunking fabricated information is crucial at this stage to avoid chaos.
"Honest and creditable news reporting is the only source for Tunisians to be able to obtain information about all events and with utter confidence," Ghanmi said.
Among Tunisians, there is a persistent lack of trust in the media, even though observers note that the Tunisian media after the revolution has enjoyed much greater freedoms.
"I tend to trust Facebook and not the Tunisian media which was, just a month ago, a mouthpiece for the former regime and has now miraculously been set free after the escape of Ben Ali," Mouna Elabdi said.
"I think the reason for lack of trust, by Tunisians, in the media contributed to a large extent in proliferating such rumours which are designed to spread fear among people," she added.
On the same note, Mounir Belhaj added that "some groups have taken advantage of Facebook to serve their own narrow interests and used it to spread false information."
"The role of the media has become important to inform people and enable them to become stronger and more aware of how to obtain information so as not to fall in the rumour trap," Darine Belghaeib said.
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