Press freedom is dynamic. Every year marks achievements and setbacks, new promises and new threats to the open practice of journalism around the world.
As part of World Free Press Day, Global Journalist highlights one of the most improved press freedom situations of the last year.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Tunisia the most improved Arab nation in terms of press freedom for 2011, jumping 30 spots on the annual ranking from 164th place to the 134th most journalistically open country. The jump follows last year’s revolution which ousted President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January after 23 years of dictatorial rule. Tunisia's revolution is credited with fomenting a series of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, which became known as the Arab Spring.
Journalist Asma Ghribi writes for the online English language Tunisia Live, one of the most recent media outlets born of Tunisia’s revolution. It is the country’s first English language outlet available to the world online after decades of government-enforced opacity. Ghribi reports on politics and social issues in Tunisia. She has followed the revolution and worked with foreign press agencies including The National, Al Jazeera English, The Globe and Mail, among others. She recently attended a fellowship in Washington, D.C., with World Affairs Journal and spent time working with American media outlets and NGOs.
Ghribi commented via email about the reportedly improved working conditions for journalists in Tunisia and the lingering obstacles impeding a free and open press.
Global Journalist: How would you characterize the relationship between journalists and citizens in Tunisia, and how has that relationship progressed in the last year?
Asma Ghribi: Both private and public media were all part of the propaganda machine of the Ben Ali regime. Many journalists were affiliated with RCD, the former ruling party, and even worked as double agents. They were journalists but also spying for the Ministry of the Interior.
In post-revolutionary Tunisia, some journalists demanded the Ministry of the Interior to provide them with the black list (the list of journalists affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior).
Also 90 percent of Tunisian journalists under the previous regime were obliged to write articles praising the regime. Some even found their names on some pieces which they never wrote.
However, not all Tunisians understand that journalists were under pressure and were threatened and forced to write articles to polish the image of Ben Ali and his relatives.
Some people tend to mistrust Tunisian journalists. Some go as far as verbally harassing journalists when covering protests and accusing them of being traitors.
The relationship between journalists and people in Tunisia is marked by tension. However, journalists are working on rebuilding the lost trust.
GJ: Your publication, Tunisia Live, is the first English language online news organization in Tunisia. What does the founding of Tunisia Live say about the state of press freedom in the country?
Ghribi: [Tunisia Live] is a post revolution initiative launched by a group of young Tunisians who felt the need to share the news of their country with the rest of the world.
We would not have existed before the revolution for the simple reason that we offer independent and verified information. Under the previous regime, either you are part of the propaganda machine, or you will be excluded from the scene.
Our very existence and survival in spite of publishing content critical to the government proves that despite the several challenges facing freedom of expression and freedom of press in Tunisia, there is a place for an avant-gardist media like Tunisia Live.
GJ: In a country where at least 10 parliament members are former political prisoners and even the prime minister spent the better part of 14 years imprisoned in solitary confinement, is the government in Tunisia now reluctant to react to criticism and dissent from journalists or citizens with imprisonment?
Ghribi: The current government has not arrested anyone for criticizing the government. This is not because members of the government are former political dissidents, as the victim can turn into a perpetrator once in power.
The interim government knows that Tunisians grew more vigilant and aware of their rights. Arresting one political dissident in Tunisia can lead to a second revolution.
However, the government did not show much tolerance to its critics. In several occasions, members of the government went as far as accusing opposition parties and independent journalists reporting on the real situation in Tunisia of spinning conspiracies against the government, inciting social unrest and damaging the reputation of the country.
The government was not reluctant to arrest journalists for other reasons. After the election of last October 23rd , which brought an Islamist party to power, censorship started to take on a religious tone. Attack on public morality was the main charge directed against more than one journalist.
GJ: You’ve covered issues regarding possible encroachments on press freedom including the privatization of the nation television station, Al Wataniya. What are the major forces threatening free press in Tunisia today, and how are journalists addressing these issues?
Ghribi: A few months after the Islamist led government took over; Tunisia is stepping backward in freedom of expression. Tunisia, the tiny North African country which led the wind of change that hit the Arab region and sparked what became labeled as the Arab Spring, is now enforcing the very same laws used by the previous regime to limit freedom of expression and freedom of press.
The absence of a law regulating media sector and protecting journalists in Tunisia is a major challenge encountering Tunisian journalists. Strikingly, in post-revolutionary Tunisia journalists and even citizens have to think twice before even publishing a post on their Facebook page.
An independent committee charged with media reform was founded shortly after the revolution to draft a new press code to protect Tunisian journalists from the past abusive laws, regulate the media sector and empower media and make of it a real fourth estate able to serve as a watchdog to the government. Two laws aimed to regulate media in Tunisia were passed last November 2nd. However, the current government decided to cancel them and restart the whole legislative process of drafting the new press code.
Meanwhile, this legal void led to the use of the old abusive penal code passed under the Ben Ali regime.
Three Tunisian journalists were arrested for publishing the picture of a half-naked woman on the front page of the daily Tunisian newspaper Attounissia. Attounisia’s publisher spent 8 days in prison and was subsequently fined 1,000 (650 USD) Tunisian Dinars.
Owner of Nessma TV, Tunisian private TV channel’s trial is still ongoing for airing a French-Iranian movie which contained scenes depicting God as an old bearded man. The depiction of God is considered blasphemous to many Muslims.
Not only journalists are being persecuted for not abiding by this relative blurry notion of public morality, two Tunisian young men were recently sentenced to seven years and half in prison and fined 1,200 Tunisian Dinars (800 US Dollars) after they posted caricatures of the prophet Mohamed on their Facebook pages.
Tunisia is still accustoming itself to democracy and freedom. The media scene in Tunisia is marked by a state of euphoria of freedom. The lack of experience and professionalism of some media outlets contribute to the dissemination of disinformation and rumors.
The government from its side is struggling to use public media outlets for its benefits. But journalists are very suspicious of any governmental intervention to regulate or to reform the sector especially with the continuous attempts of the government to intervene in managing public media and its persisting criticism to the editorial line of the National Television for instance. Journalists at the public media are striving to disentangle themselves from being governmental media and are aiming to become free and independent.
INRIC, the independent committee charged with media reform said that the government is trying to expand its authority over public media.
Many people already suspected that Ennahdha, the leading party in the coalition government, was behind the protest in front of the National television calling for cleansing public media. The suspicions were confirmed when some National Constituent Assembly members affiliated with Ennahdha visited the protest and showed their support for the demands of the demonstrators who had been camping in front of the headquarters of the National TV for more than two months.
Journalists feel threatened and are trying to unify their efforts and form a strong front able to stand for their rights.