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January 23, 2011

Tunisians React to New Media Options

by Lisa Bryant

Tunisians are savoring new media freedoms announced a week ago by the country's caretaker government following the toppling of autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  However, for the Al-Kitab bookstore in downtown Tunis, the fight for free expression is not over.

As anti-government demonstrators mark yet another day of protest, a smaller crowd is gathered before a store window on Tunis' main Habib Bourguiba Avenue, staring at its contents - more than a dozen books on display that were banned less than two weeks ago under former Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Selma Jabbes, owner of Al-Kitab, describes the books in the window - books highly critical of the Ben Ali regime. "You see the most wanted one - La Regente de Carthage, which is written by Nicolas Beau, who is a journalist from Le Monde... it's about the family of the ex-president Ben Ali and his wife. And all the exactions (atrocities) they did, all the societies (businesses) they had... "

Even books on the economy and tourism that may have made a passing criticism of the country's government - all fell victim to Tunisia's heavy-handed censorship laws.

That changed dramatically a week ago, when interim prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced "total" freedom of the media. That "total freedom" appears to be in doubt after the interim government shut down a popular TV channel Sunday. Still, Tunisians like Jabbes assume it means freedom of expression, in general.

"It's extraordinary for us - this liberty of expression we see in Tunisia," said Jabbes. "We hope it will stay and it will always be like this. Because Tunisians are big enough to think by themselves, to do by themselves, to read what they want - it's great."

Jabbes is no stranger to media censorship. Her mother opened Al-Kitab  half a century ago, and she took it over in 1988 - a year after Ben Ali came to power. The former president promised free expression. The reality was censorship.

Jabbes was forced to get a government license of every book she ordered - licenses that often were denied. More often than not, she was hauled into the interior ministry to be reprimanded.

"They wanted us to make our own censorship. To limit our orders. But I never agreed with this."

Books about political Islam also were banned by the country's staunchly secular government. Now, 27-year-old Ismael Skheir checks the shop's literature on Tunisia's once-banned Ennadha Islamist party.

Skheir said he is seeking the truth about the Islamists - and whether their thinking fits in Tunisia.

Twenty-one year old university student Miriam Khalfala is another shop window gazer. She said there have always been ways to get around Tunisia's censorship laws, including downloading books on the Internet.

"So even if they say no, we can have those books," said Khalfala. "But it's about the principle. We want freedom. We want democracy. We want those books and they have to know this. "

Even though Tunisia's caretaker government has vowed free expression, those promises have yet to be translated into law. In principle, Al-Kitab must still get a government license for every book it orders.

So bookstore staff like Amel Chehimi are on the street - urging passersby to sign a petition to revoke the license requirements.

So far, Chehimi said, Al-Kitab has gotten 600 signatures. It hopes to get 1,000 before it sends the government its demand for the freedom to order, display and sell any book it wants.

Timeline of Tunisia on Dipity.

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