Tunisian media enjoy freedom, fear for future

By Andrew Hammond

TUNIS | Fri Jan 21, 2011 4:06pm GMT

(Reuters) – At their union headquarters in central Tunis, journalists long used to rigid censorship meet to ponder the meaning of an era of freedom they never saw coming.

“People are joyous but the feeling is mixed with concern,” says Zouheir Taba, a journalist at Hurriya, a paper owned by the RCD party that dominated the North African country for decades until a popular revolt ousted the president last week.

“There’s a big fear that journalists will be the exception to the revolution and the new republic will behave the same as before towards the media,” Taba says as journalists wander in and out of the union’s offices in a small colonial-era villa.

Just down the street can be heard the chants of hundreds of protesters against the RCD’s presence in Tunisia’s interim government — formed after president Zine Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on Friday.

When Ben Ali left, as thousands surged through the streets of the capital in protest, journalists sensed that control mechanisms that had created a culture of fear over the past 23 years were finally coming undone.

Print journalists realised they were free to write what they want. On state television, a movement that had been denounced for weeks for violence and rioting was by Sunday a “revolution.”

The channel changed its name from Channel 7 — in memory of the date in November 1987 when Ben Ali took power — to Tunisian TV, and began running endless talk shows where opposition figures, rights activists and intellectuals who had never been on air before celebrated the end of dictatorship.

The army was praised as the saviour of the nation for cracking down on militias linked to Ben Ali and soon official terminology shifted to calling the uprising “the people’s revolution for freedom and dignity.”

However, journalists note that the network of senior editors, managers and censors established by Ben Ali to control the media remains in place so the changes could yet be reversed.

CENSOR SACKED

The RCD’s Hurriya suddenly stopped publishing the day after Ben Ali left, Taba said.

“We prepared the edition for Saturday but the next day it wasn’t printed and we don’t know whose decision it was,” he said. “In that last edition we were with the revolution. We said the will of the people had been realised.”

At Assabah newspaper, which Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher Materi bought in 2008, columnist Saleh Attia says journalists removed regime figures and reconfigured the editorial line.

“In the first two days we were completely shocked. We were elated but worried that Ben Ali could return,” he said. “Journalists feared they would be punished for anything they said if he came back.”

By Sunday an interim president had been announced and media felt more confident. Assabah told its in-house censor, appointed by Materi himself, that his services were no longer needed.

The tabloid press has been having a field day. Papers have carried daily reports of the scandals of Tunisia’s former first lady Leila Trabelsi, a hate figure for many over her extensive influence and lavish lifestyle.

One paper ran a front page photoshopped image of the former first couple stuffing electoral ballot boxes with dollar bills.

Journalists say Ben Ali controlled the media through a network of allies and yes-men managed by his political advisor Abdelwahhab Abdallah. Abdallah has disappeared, his villa in an affluent suburb of Tunis burnt and vandalised.

“Abdelwahhab Abdallah made Tunisian media a barren desert where the only opinion that mattered was Ben Ali’s. Their idea was that no voice should be heard but Ben Ali’s,” said Attia.

Journalists were suspended for months on end or moved to other jobs within the state-owned media as punishment if they refused to toe the line. Journalists say free mobile SIM cards handed out by their union were a ruse to spy on them.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Despite the sudden freedom, Attia fears for the direction of the uprising. He says the country is open to agents provocateurs and interference from Arab states keen for the democratic experiment to fail, citing Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali is staying in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy long fearful of reform movements in the Middle East that controls many pan-Arab television and newspaper outlets.

“Tunisia could be a beacon for press in the Arab world,” Attia said. “Now we need sensible writing. It can’t reflect street rhetoric. We need to move towards building the future.”

Uncertainty prevails on all sides.

The state television building remains under heavy guard. Inside, senior executives who once carried out regime orders were nervous about their future, employees said.

“The same officials who used to take orders on what would be on the news are still here. But they are working under pressure from the journalists who want more freedom here,” says Salwa Rizgi, whose job is to follow social media and Internet. “We are confident nothing will change, we are determined.”

Rizgi admits she was a member of the 2 million members of the RCD but says she was forced out of the party because she took to wearing a Muslim hair-covering veil — the party enforced Ben Ali’s strict rules on secularism.

“I was never a member,” Habib Ben Said, a senior official in charge of programming, is quick to add — though he confesses he had been a “self-censor” himself.

“Everything before was about instructions and censoring yourself. Now there is total openness,” he said, pointing to an opposition figure, just returned from abroad, talking on-screen.

In the past few days, TV producers have begun refusing to invite on air journalists seen as “court correspondents” who once had favoured access to Ben Ali and other senior figures.

But journalists with bitter experiences of state media said they feared events were still being directed by unseen forces.

“There is only freedom of press now because of public pressure,” said Walid Braham, an editor of a state-owned magazine who was sacked for refusing to publish flattering pieces about the former ruler. “The chiefs are still there and it’s up to the government to remove them.”

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