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Tunisia's Media Savor Freedom

  • Lisa Bryant

Men look at newspapers at a street kiosk in downtown Tunis, 19 Jan 2011

Men look at newspapers at a street kiosk in downtown Tunis, 19 Jan 2011

It is deadline time at Realites, a small weekly news magazine in downtown Tunis. Journalists race to get their articles in, making last phone calls and checking facts to report on history. Since the weekly's last edition, Tunisians have toppled their long-term leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in what they call their "Jasmine" revolution.

Now journalists like Realites' Azza Turki, 29, are struggling with the chaos that has followed, Tunisia's shaky interim government, the demonstrations and the unrest.

Keeping up with change

Turki says Tunisian journalists have not be able to keep up with the fast moving events here. Each time they try, the news changes.

It is a revolution for the media here, as well. On Monday, interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced the government was lifting all restrictions on the media. He also abolished the Information Ministry, which muzzled the media during Ben Ali's 23 years in power.

For Realites' Editor in Chief Zyed Krichen, the new-found freedoms have brought the weekly back to its initial goals - to be a truly independent publication.

Krichen says that, under the post-independence government of Tunisia's former president Habib Bourguiba, Realites did have a certain amount of room to maneuver, even if it was often suspended for months for allegedly defaming members the government. He says that, under Ben Ali, that freedom disappeared.

Krichen says there were lots of taboos, under Ben Ali. The media could not criticize the president or his family. They could not report on scandals touching the government or powerful businesses or electoral fraud.

Social media role

It was cyberspace, notably Facebook, Twitter and blogs that disseminated the information driving Tunisia's power change, not the traditional media. Tunisia's press barely reported on the protests until Ben Ali's departure.

Now, evening news is full of Tunisians criticizing the government. Tunisia's state television has changed direction. Some newspapers have followed suit, firing their editors-in-chief.

The events in Tunisia may be a warning signal for other Arab states, where media restrictions are common. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders gave poor marks to the Middle East and North Africa in its latest media freedom index. Tunisia scored near the bottom. "Predator of press freedom leaves," Reporters Without Borders says of Ben Ali's departure.

At Realites, the reporters now have one restriction - their deadline. They have to put their news magazine to bed before dark.