Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders in Tunisia: A new freedom that needs protecting

Reporters Without Borders in Tunisia: A new freedom that needs protecting

Published on Thursday 10 February 2011. Updated on Friday 11 February 2011.
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Reporters Without Borders visited Tunisia from 2 to 4 February to evaluate the situation of the media two weeks after the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to analyze their needs and to determine what contribution it could make during this transition period.

The organization’s representatives met many journalists, including those opposed to the former regime, those linked to it, and members of the Union of Tunisian Journalists. They also met with the new secretary of state for youth and sport (who is a blogger), and distributed technical equipment.

“Tunisia is in full ferment,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. “Its journalists are living a historic period in which their freedom is being respected for the first time. They must be encouraged and supported. This young revolution’s gains must above all be consolidated. Censorship has not totally disappeared and could return in force at any moment. To guard against this, a legal and institutional framework with lasting guarantees for free expression must be put in place quickly. This requires legislative reforms and the creation of independent media regulatory bodies.

“After 23 years of censorship, press freedom is a reality in Tunisia,” Julliard added. “This was unexpected. We are thrilled for all the free speech activists. During all these years, a handful of people fought to defend their freedom. At last their efforts and their tenacity are being rewarded. We are thinking of them and all those who are now going to be able to practice journalism in more favourable conditions. Reporters Without Borders will continue to have a major presence in Tunisia and to play its role as a defender of freedoms.”

For 23 years, the Ben Ali regime kept a tight grip on news and information in the traditional media and then online. After a month of street protests, the people’s revolution succeeded in driving the president into exile on 14 January.

The provisional government of national unity that took over abolished the information ministry on 17 January. Slim Amamou, a blogger who had been released four days earlier, became secretary of state for youth and sport. The new government immediately proclaimed complete freedom of information and expression as a fundamental principle.

Tunisia’s media a month after Ben Ali’s fall: new start or continuity?

Overview: number of media so far unchanged

An explosion can be expected soon in the number of newspapers and magazines, and the creation of new radio and TV stations.

But so far there has been no change in the number of media. The Tunisie 7 TV station has changed its name to Télévision Tunisienne Nationale. No new TV station licences have yet been issued because the government must first draft a transparent list of criteria for awarding broadcast media licences. Meanwhile, some media that have been operating without a licence (which they failed to obtain because of their editorial policies) have filed requests. They are waiting for a response.

News content turnaround, but red lines persist

The tone of the media has completely changed, along with their way of covering the news. Subjects that were completely ignored by the print media in Ben Ali’s time are now being tackled. It is the same with television. Tunisians never used to see reports on social issues on TV. Now they do. Even the very official news agency TAP has changed its tone.

In a historic development, Tunisians were also able to watch a TV interview with the interior minister for the first time on 1 February.

Some newspapers that used to lavish praise on Ben Ali and his wife and smear his opponents – for example, Koul El-Nas and Al-Ahdath – are now calling for the death penalty for members of the deposed president’s family.

Many opposition figures who were banned from the national media are now on the front pages of the newspapers and are frequent guests on radio and TV programmes.

The three newspapers that used to be described as “opposition” publications – Al-Maouqif, Al-Mouatinoun and Al Tariq al-Jadid – are now being printed and distributed without the “technical” problems they used to keep having with the companies that print them.

While the freedom is real, new red lines seem to be emerging. Violence by the police and army, alleged corruption involving the former president’s friends and relatives who are still in Tunisia, and the problems that the new government is encountering continue to get little coverage in the media.

The watchword is moderation, to defuse social tension and “calm things down.”

Télévision Tunisienne Nationale’s coverage of incidents outside the Casbah (the seat of government) at the end of January reflected only one viewpoint, the interior ministry’s. Other events have not been covered, such as the 2 February meeting organized by the coalition known as the “14 January Front.” Télévision Tunisienne Nationale did not show up.

While some leading figures are invited to express their views in the media, they are not completely free to say what they want. Some who were invited into TV studios during the days immediately after Ben Ali’s departure (such as the former minister and opposition leader Mostafa Ben Jaffar) no longer are. Télévision Tunisienne Nationale ruled out a proposal by one of its reporters for a live debate between journalists who had been jailed in Ben Ali’s time.

Starting over with the same journalists

Some leading media figures have been fired, such as the head of the newspaper La Presse, replaced by a new CEO elected by a committee of journalists. Other media personalities who were eliminated during Ben Ali’s rule are back in prominent positions. In many cases, journalists have taken control of newspapers.

But most journalists have held on to their jobs and there have been no changes at any level in most news media. The Ben Ali regime’s former defenders have turned into revolutionaries and pioneers of change. The old regime’s press bosses have not disappeared.

Partially liberated Internet

Internet censorship was immediately lifted, as President Ben Ali promised in his 13 January address, but some online controls are still in place, as the new secretary of state for youth and sport, Slim Amamou, acknowledged. The accounts Reporters Without Borders received from many Internet users and bloggers confirmed this. The Bahraini Amira Al Hussaini’s Global Voices blog, for example, cannot be accessed from within Tunisia (last verification at 03:27 on 5 February) because of her coverage of events in Tunisia, including abuses by the security forces.

Today’s and tomorrow’s challenges

For the authorities

As soon as the new provisional government was created, it decided to abolish the information ministry. It was a symbolic step forward but it was not enough. The entire way the Tunisian media function needs to be overhauled. They will have to face many challenges.

The provisional government will create a Political Reform Commission in the new few days. This independent commission will have the job of drawing up the legal and institutional reforms that will enable a real democratic transition. Part of its work will focus on the media and the changes that are needed to the media system.

The new Tunisian authorities need to draw up:

  • a legal framework for the media, including the creation of genuinely independent and autonomous regulatory bodies (for the broadcast and print media)
  • a legal framework for issuing licences that allow new media to be created
  • a new media code.

The president of the Union of Journalists, Neji Bghouri, met interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi on 30 January. Among the requests made by the union was the abolition of the Tunisian Agency for External Communication (ATCE) or at least an overhaul of its mandate. The same request was made for the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI).

The authorities will sooner or later have to take a decision on the future of the existing media, especially those that supported the Ben Ali government and consequently found it easy to obtain licences. The training of journalists, especially training in journalistic ethics and professional conduct, will also have to be tackled.

Clear directives must be issued to put a stop to Internet censorship and to prevent the interior ministry from being able to access the data of Internet users.

What Reporters Without Borders plans to do

Reporters Without Borders undertakes to assist the Tunisian authorities in their efforts to reform the entire media system in Tunisia with the aim of establishing media diversity. A new freedom must be created that allows the media to fully play their role as independent watchdog.

Reporters Without Borders will work with the Union of Journalists in order to jointly propose new legal frameworks and it stands ready to offer its expertise in the drafting of a new media code.

In order to achieve these goals, Reporters Without Borders hopes to open a bureau in the Tunisian capital in the coming months with the aim of assisting the new government, journalists and civil society in its entirety in their progress towards a democracy in which free speech and media freedom are respected as fundamental principles.

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