Contrary to civil unrests in Tunisia during the last few years, the dramatic death of 26 year old university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi sparked off angry protests in many parts of the country and have attracted international media attention thanks to social media networks. The dramatic events have escalated into more riots in Bizerte, Jandouba, Gasserine, Baja, Sfax, Nabeul, Hammamet, and even in the capital Tunis, among other towns and cities.
This emergency situation has compelled the government to say that they will swiftly kick-start development projects, namely in the southern deprived areas of the country.
President Ben Ali initially pledged 5 billion Tunisian dinars for the development of Sidi Bouzid and other towns. He then promised the creation of 300,000 new jobs for the next two years. In another major step, he sacked key ministers from the cabinet in an attempt to calm down his critics and buy time to bring the country back to order.
Faced with even more growing unrest (and in a latest move) the president promised to open up freedom of expression in the media, to free up political life, to bring to justice corrupt politicians and above all free the media and remove all restrictions on the internet.
Yet all these measure came in the eleventh hour. The mounting pressure, which turned into a revolution, has forced the president to flee the country.
The Role of New Media
In light of the dramatic development of events, on a considerable scale, it has become evident that new media have been playing a key role this time around in keeping the momentum going, and bringing the voices of the disengaged Tunisian youth to the attention of world media, and hence to international public opinion.
Mobile phones, blogs, YouTube, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds have become instrumental in mediating the live coverage of protests and speeches, as well as police brutality in dispersing demonstrations.
The internet in this case has assumed the role of a very effective uncensored news agency from which every broadcaster and news corporation have been able to freely source newsfeeds, raw from the scene.
Such developments have proven very significant in changing the rules of the game, of journalism production and dissemination of information in a country where the government historically keeps tight control on the media and where almost no platform is available for opinions critical of the political elite.
Decades of State Media Control
Article 1 of the Press Code in Tunisia provides for “freedom of the press, publishing, printing, distributing and sale of books and publications”. The Tunisian constitution asserts that the “liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly, and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law”.
Yet as early as 1956, with the birth of the first republic under the leadership of President Habib Bourguiba, the ruling government gained control over the press – and later over broadcasting. As a result almost all the media outlets remained propaganda tools in the hands of Bourguiba’s government and ruling party.
Under Ben Ali (who came to power through a coup in 1987) the media and government relationship got even worse. For a short period of time a few independent newspapers appeared, but their existence was short lived.
Television and radio have remained state controlled and primarily serving the ruling government. The Tunisian Radio and Television Establishment (ERTT) is state-run and operates Tunis 7 (satellite channel), and Canal 21 (terrestrial channel). However, the audiovisual landscape witnessed the launch of the first private TV channel (Hannibal TV) headed by Larbi Nasra on February 13, 2005. The channel broadcasts via satellite and terrestrially, and is aimed at expanding the audience’s choice by producing a variety of programs.
Increase of State-Owned Radio Channels
Three ‘independent’ radio stations have also been licensed which include: Radio Mosaique FM, Jawhara FM (caters mainly for youth programs), and Zitouna FM – owned by Mohamed Sakhr Almatri – launched on September 13, 2007 and was dedicated to the recitation of the Quran, the Prophet Mohammad’s life and broadcasting tarawih prayers during Ramadan.
A fundamental role the state TV does is to promote the image of the president as a competent, successful and progressive leader. Almost half of the main evening news program on TV7 or Channel 21 report on the everyday meetings, initiatives and engagements the president takes part in.
The emergence of a couple of ‘independent’ radio and television stations during the last few years has not improved the situation as the scope of freedom of expression remains controlled by the same regimental unwritten rules: No room for opposing opinions; it is a taboo to criticize the president, cabinet ministers, or government corruption; et al.
Civil society organizations, lawyers, academics, and trade unions do not have a platform to express their critical views on state media or ‘independent’ media.
The press has also had a stormy experience with tight censorship measures placed on them during the last few decades. Major newspapers in the country have developed self-censorship rules in order to survive, and they mainly report uncritically on the government policies.
Other international newspapers (Le Monde, Liberation, Le Figaro, Al-Quds Alarabi to name a few) that attempt to expose government corruption, human rights abuses and the country’s democratic deficit get censored.
According to Reporters without Borders, “journalists and human rights activists have been the target of constant bureaucratic harassment, police violence and surveillance by the intelligence services.” The government has direct control on the servers, and “the regime has become almost obsessive about control of news and information”.
Excerpt, read article: Tunisia: A Media Revolution? – By Dr. Noureddine Miladi |AlJazeera