Print options

January 19, 2011

Tunisia's Media Savor Freedom

by Lisa Bryant

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.

Key players in Tunisia

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for more than two decades. He fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

Mohamed Ghannouchi

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi is a close ally of the ousted president. He announced a new unity government this week.

Fouad Mebazaa

Fouad Mebazaa was sworn in as Tunisia's interim president last week. H previously served as the speaker of parliament.

Najib Chebbi

Najib Chebbi is the founder of the largest and most credible opposition group, the Progressive Democratic Party.

Moncek Marzouki

Moncek Marzouki is the head of the small Congress for the Republic party. The formerly exiled political activist and opposition leader returned to the country Tuesday.

Rachid Ghannouchi

Rachid Ghannouchi is the exiled leader of the outlawed Ennahdha Islamic fundamentalist movement. In 1992, a Tunisian military court sentenced him to life in prison on a conviction of plotting to overthrow the government. He has been living in Britain but has indicated he may now return to Tunisia. He is no relation to the prime minister by the same last name.

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.

 

NEW: Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.