Old practices die hard in Tunisia's media

AFP , Friday 26 Aug 2011

Journalists and media experts in Tunisia call impatiently for total freedom of the press following complaints from journalists that they still suffer pressures to control what they write or say

Journalists and media experts in Tunisia are calling impatiently for an overhaul of the press, hidebound by the practices of the repressive regime ousted by a popular uprising seven months ago. Several journalists have complained that political pressure is still exercised to control what they say or write.

"It concerns the choice of subject matter, and the question of who is invited to take part in broadcasts. [Toppled president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali is gone, but such practices have not changed," stated Najiba Hamrouni, the chairwoman of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists.

"Those who were in charge of the media before 14 January remain in charge to this day, with the same reflexes and the same structures," according to journalist and blogger Henda Hendoud, who stressed "the difficulty of reaching reliable sources" and "intimidation" against the profession. She cited the example of an interview with an official in the ministry of the interior who accused her of lacking objectivity and threw her out.

Editorial conferences are very rare in media outlets. The vertical gap between journalists and their chief editors persists, leaving few opportunities for journalists to argue the case for covering a topic. Instead, they are largely told what to do. The urge to self-censorship is tenacious after decades of repressive rule. "Some of my colleagues hold that to criticise the government or the army is dangerous or shows lack of respect," one journalist testified on condition of anonymity.

In spite of such setbacks, the situation has improved on some fronts. A new press code, strengthening the rights of journalists, has only just been adopted by the transitional authorities. The new code abolishes the need to ask systematically for authorisation to film from the ministry of the interior. Furthermore, the Tunisian Agency of External Communication, which censored foreign media under Ben Ali, has been scrapped. "You can hear that speech is freer, particularly on the radio," says academic Ridha Ferjani, a specialist in the media.

But the need for journalists' training, already evident under Ben Ali, is all the more important in a period of political effervescence. More and more people are adding their voices to the call for reform of the Institute of the Press and Information Sciences (IPSI) in Tunis, which is the only journalists' college in the country.

"I spent four completely wasted years there," said Henda Heddoud. "We were forbidden to exercise a critical or analytical spirit, we just had to stay faithful to the copy put out by the official news agency."

"We can't change everything with a magic wand," Larbi Chouikha, a member of the body assigned the task of media reform and a teacher at the IPSI, responded. "The most urgent thing is the need for the institute to review its teaching methods and to adapt to a competitive climate."

One issue that divides the profession is blogging. Many journalists have a poor view of the generation of young bloggers who were very active during the mounting social unrest of December 2010 and January 2011. Yet a number of these bloggers have been recruited in the mainstream media. "The profession has not managed to become aware of the changes that have happened with the Internet", Henda Hendoud said. Blogger Emna Ben Jemaa was more severe: "For the existing journalists, we have no legitimate status. But what I want to know is where they were before the fall of the regime."


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