Before January 14, 2011 Tunisian media was one of the three fundamental pillars of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, along with the police and the judiciary. All types of expression were censored including art, books, and news. A powerful police apparatus, with honed technological skills, monitored the Internet. Disobedient journalists, or those critical of the regime, were harassed and at times beaten and arrested. The regime used both public and private media as instruments of propaganda and those who supervised the media were meticulously chosen to ensure that nothing was left uncensored. However, this rigorous censorship machine couldn’t control everything: social networks could often circumvent blocked sites using proxies and of course, everyone watched Al Jazeera to find out what was happening across the country. Some opposition journalists resisted censorship and frequent seizures to varying degrees of success.
Everything changed after Ben Ali’s regime. The media landscape was transformed into a much more liberal, pluralist and bold domain. Soon enough, huge numbers of headlines and radio stations sprung up. Everyone began taking advantage of this new free space which gave Tunisia room to move, liberated from the shackles of the regime. The onslaught of media usage quelled demands for freedom of expression and instead provoked demands for regulation of the laws and reforms of the sector. In collaboration with the government, the High Council for the Realization of the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reforms, and Democratic Transition undertook a number of important measures to reform the sector, including developing a legal framework which could assure freedom of expression and access to information and guarantee an ethical underpinning for the profession.
The composition of the government elected on October 23, 2011 demonstrated that the people were hungry to experience real freedom of expression, and all waited to see what this new government would bring. During the first month of this new, majority Islamist, government, the first signs of deception came to light. The legal decrees guaranteeing the protection of journalists and the establishment of an independent media are still yet to be passed.
Further, and against all expectation, the government is engaged in controversial appointments of people known for their close relationship with the old regime.
Is this a return to old methods or just evidence of a wish to rein in a media which “has gone too far”? According to the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), it is both. The Union organized a rally in collaboration with other civil society organizations on January 9, 2012 to denounce “the new power’s political control over public media, practices which are not unlike those of the fallen regime”.
Equally, just like under Ben Ali, criticizing the government can land you in prison. Towards the end of August, the producer of satirical television show “Political Logic” came under pressure from the Prime Minister’s adviser to stop the show. Following this, an arrest warrant was put out for the producer as part of an ‘embezzlement’ investigation, despite the fact that the principal suspect remains free! This affair is typical of life under Ben Ali.
Another worrying sign: frequent attacks against journalists. Journalists have been the victims of a hundred and thirty assaults since January 1 2012, according to the Tunis office of Reporters Without Borders. The most alarming aspect of these attacks is that “these assaults have not been investigated and punished” insists Olivia Gré, manager of the Tunis office.
The appointment of Kamel Labidi, exiled journalist under Ben Ali, known for his competency, reliability and integrity, to the head of the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC) just a few weeks after the Revolution was highly welcomed. However, on 1 July 2012, during a press conference, he decided to resign his position. Three reasons were put forward:
- The government’s recourse to “censorship and disinformation, just like under Ben Ali”;
- The government’s refusal to apply Decrees 115 and 116 to protect journalists and establish a regulatory framework for audiovisual media, as well as Decree 41 addressing freedom of information for administrative documents; and
- Controversial appointments to top media positions and appointments imposed without consultation with relevant parties.
In fact, it is these same appointments that caused the power struggle between the government and journalists. Journalists from the newspaper Dar Assabah have been holding sit-ins and hunger strikes for weeks. They are protesting the appointment of the new Director General, an old police commissioner, who was arrested and tried for corruption under the Ben Ali regime.
However, the real culmination of this power struggle was on 17 October 2012, when the National Union of Tunisian Journalists organized a coordinated strike for the first time in the history of Tunisia and the Arab world. The success of the strike, with estimated 90% participation, as well as the solidarity movement within and outside of Tunisia are tangible proof of a strong, united belief throughout civil society in Tunisia. This belief is that the country cannot return to the climate of fear which began to subside from 17 December 2010 and which reached its climax on 14 January 2011. No government can call itself democratic while at the same time taking measures to rein in the press. One of the slogans used during the journalists’ protest on 17 October 2012 was “No democracy without independent media”.
The demands, in reality, are just representative of the requirements for founding a new democracy: the inclusion of freedom of expression and of the press in the constitution; renouncing partisan appointments; and putting in place Decrees 115 and 116 on freedom of press, publishing and printing, as well as on the independence of the audiovisual sector.
Following the protest movement, from journalists’ sit-ins to the strike of 17 October 2012, the government has begun to yield. It has announced that it will apply Decrees 115 and 116 guaranteeing freedom of the press. This is a good sign, but there is still long way to go. The media, like all aspects of Tunisian civil society, has only won a few battles in this difficult war for freedom – a war against a power which is making use of all available avenues to put freedom of expression under its thumb, from partisan appointments to top media positions to harassing journalists and enlarging the scope of the ‘Sacred’, used like the sword of Damocles against the flourishing of art, creativity, and critique.