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.