Tunisia’s Media: Under Attack and Fighting Back

The Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis turned many eyes to Tunisia in recent days, but less attention has been paid to the intense internal strife and incidents of violence that dominated the months of January and February.

National identity debates, religious divisions, and tension between the religious and the secular appear to drive much of the unrest that has followed the first anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution. Today I will related events pertaining to one area of great concern: freedom of expression and the media.

January 23: Attacks on Journalists
–Journalists, activists and intellectuals have been the target of verbal and physical attacks since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, but recent months registered an escalation of this violence. On 23, journalist Zied Krichen, and university professor Hamadi Redissi–along with lawyers and other protesters–joined the growing list of victims; they were publicly assaulted outside the court where TV executive Nabil Karoui was on trial accused of blasphemy and disturbing public order.

Krichen and Redissi filed a complaint against their attackers, a group of Salafists who rallied at the court to protest Karoui’s choice to air Persepolis; the French-Iranian film’s depiction of God as an old bearded man is seen as blasphemous by religious extremists.

“If the physical safety of journalists is jeopardized, we cannot start talking about freedom of the press,” Krichen said. Redissi, who suffered a violent beating, expressed fears that the secular revolution might be hijacked by a religious one. Sofiene Ben Hamida, another journalist victimized by an earlier assault, accused the ruling party, Ennahda, of using religious extremists as weapon to terrorize journalists and activistsbased on the government’s refusal to put an end to the violence.

But according to Tunisia Live there’s more to these attacks than religious radicalization, and they point to several beatings of journalists by police agents–including those of two female journalists covering a protest of university professors.

In response to the events outside the court, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali addressed the Constituent Assembly to condemn the assaults and vowed to pursue offenders. The Ennahda party issued a similar statement, calling for dialogue between diverging ideologies, but also reiterated that accusations against party members lacked proof and government action would only deepen the divide.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights condemned the violence and promised to pressure the government to investigate.

February 1: Media Strike
—Tunisian newspapers declared a nation-wide media strike and printed a banner (image below) in support of “independence of the press, freedom of expression and justice for all those who trample on the rights of journalists and communicators.”

As expressed by Arbi Chouikha–renowned journalist,  professor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI) and  member of the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform, (INRIC)–“Tunisian journalists realized that freedom of press is jeopardized in Tunisia and felt the necessity to come together and unify their efforts.” The strike had the backing of several major media unions, and a committee of union leaders met with Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, now drafting Tunisia’s new constitution. Their demands included constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression, the enforcement of the Press Code and the creation of the High Independent Authority of Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), an independent body to protect journalists and penalize those who violate their rights.

February 13: The Journalism Foundation Launches in Tunisia—On the upside, The Journalism Foundation launched the Tunisian project with a series of workshops and a closing lecture by The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Frisk. Present at the lecture was Evgeny Lebedev, Chairman of the Trustees of the foundation and proprietor of The Independent and The Evening Standard. He earlier met with Tunisia’s Prime Minister to discuss the role of free media in a democratic society.

February 15: Censorship and Arrests
—Following the publication of a partly-nude photograph, the publisher and two editors of the post-revolution Attounissia newspaper were arrested on charges of immoral publication and disrupting public order. While charges were dropped against the editors, publisher Nassridine Ben Said remained detained and on hunger strike until February 23. His trial is schedule for March 8.

“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV

“They took everyone by surprise, including themselves,” reads the introduction to “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” an engaging new book by Marwan Bishara, Senior Political Analyst for Al Jazeera English. In a brisk, thoroughly reported narrative, Mr. Bishara traces decades of the social and political evolution of the nameless, invisible Arabs who dreamed and then willed the revolutions we have come to know as the Arab Spring. Acknowledging the vulnerabilities which still threaten the evolution of these movements, the writer yet declares them an irreversible break with the past.

Describing his book as an essay, Mr. Bishara—who is also the host of Al Jazeera’s “Empire,” a program on global powers and their interests—delivers a sweeping, provocative and at times entertaining tale, revolution jokes and all.

While recognizing the catapulting role of youth–60 percent of the region’s population—and their networking tools in bringing the people to the public square and toppling some of the world’s most notorious dictators in a matter of weeks, Mr. Bishara contends this is only the camera-ready part of the revolutions’ narrative.

Rising labor forces, women activists, community organizers—football teams!—and emerging Arab news networks are generously credited for their contributions to the Arab Awakening. At the same time, he scathingly exposes those who propped up, defended or cut deals with deceitful and influence-peddling rulers, allowing them to buy time with empty promises, slogans and peripheral reforms. Islamic groups—the big winners of the revolution–are also faulted for their lack of commitment to democratic principles.

International, regional and nationalistic interests and allegiances that justified and empowered repressive regimes across the birthplace of human civilization are wholly deconstructed. From Morocco to Iran, from Somalia to Turkey—skipping only the monarchy of Qatar—Mr. Bishara distills the complexity of the region into a succinct yet meaningful and insightful chronicle.

Western readers are in for an awakening of their own, as Mr. Bishara lays bare the stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs—as people–which have kept them conveniently invisible to the world, feeding doubts about their appetite and capacity for democracy. He highlights the divide between the region and the West that he sees as amplified by Western media, and complicated by 9/11. Mr. Bishara does not hold back feelings, using strong, not-always-journalistic language to describe Western leaders, policies and world views. But for the willing reader, “The Invisible Arab” is a mind-stretching journey halfway across a cultural divide.

American readers are in for many a humbling moment throughout the book, particularly in a section titled “Manufacturing a Modern Day ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’” Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted crediting the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” with a role in the democratization of the Middle East. Cited in an interview with Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney makes a direct connection between the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. Needless to say, Mr. Bishara does not fail to contrast these claims with a 2004 visit to the Bush White House by Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, and President Obama’s visit with Hosni Mubarak, six months before the Egyptian uprising.

As the Arab revolution continues to evolve and unfold–and the West gasps at the electoral wins of Islamist parties—Mr. Bishara debates the way forward, juxtaposing what he terms the “two faces of the new pan-Islamic revival”: the Turkish model of “cooperation and coordination” between the secular and the religious (favored by the revolutionaries) versus the Iranian theocratic framework where, elected parliament and president notwithstanding, all yield to the Supreme Leader.

“Fasten Your Seat Belts,” is the title of a section on the colossal difficulties ahead. Mr. Bishara’s closing thoughts include a warning about “victims becoming victimizers”; a call to Arab intellectuals to transform “the social and political revolutions into a cultural revolution that affects all aspects of Arab life”; and a strong defense of “a civic constitution that enshrines human values” and “protects the rights of secular and religious alike.”

Released on February 1 by Nation Books, “The Invisible Arab” is an insightful and absorbing read for inquiring minds, and a valuable tool for students of the Middle East. As globally resonant events continue to unfold in the region, a sequel is clearly in order.