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Crackdown on free media in Tunisia

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Stifling the media can lead to the emergence of robust new media, like those that accelerated the end of some of the most autocratic Arab dictators.

Meriem Dhaouadi
2 September 2012

One of the achievements of the troika government in implementing transitional justice is its replacement of the leading media figures of the former autocratic regime with those same people, as long as they are willing to shift their loyalty to this current government.

Under the umbrella of ‘cleansing the media’, the Ennahda-led government has launched its own war against one of the gains of the Tunisian uprising, the freedom of press.  The debate and the battle of ideas in the current media outlets seem to constitute a threat. “The government is not attempting to control the media but it will not let the media become platforms of opposition to the working of the government”, declared the minister of foreign affairs, Rafik Abdessalem.

The Government seems to be nostalgic for the former media landscape in Tunisia when we had state-run news organizations promoting only one voice, one opinion, one truth and a lot of dull programmes that urged Tunisian viewers to remain passive and channel their thoughts anywhere but to the fundamental issues of change and social justice.

Their target has been the owner of a private TV channel, Ettounsiya, that broadcast during Ramadan a satirical puppet show in which the government was criticised instead of congratulated. The Tunisian authorities claim that they respect freedom of speech and that the arrest of Sami Fehri has to do with a corruption case that dates back to the era of the toppled president  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  The hypocrisy of the government is evident, for they turn a blind eye to all the corrupt ‘businessmen’ who were engaged with the former regime who made fortunes at the expense of the Tunisian people, and bring to justice only those others who have not undertaken the necessary ‘baptism’ of swearing loyalty to the government.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday condemned the government for its crackdown on state media and the appointment to top state media posts of ‘inappropriate’ figures without consulting media staff in the relevant news organizations. They emphasize the urgent need to found an independent body to regulate and reform the media sector.

The intimidation of the media started in March 2012 when pro-Ennahda protesters staged a sit-in in front of the headquarters of Wataniya TV and accused the national TV of plotting with the opposition to overthrow the Government and effectively ‘being unbiased’ in order to harm the reputation of the Government.

The lack of transparency of government policy on this raises the suspicion that the coalition government is determined to subject the country to an information blackout, while the most recently appointed figures are accused of changing the editorial line to suit Government preferences.

Lotfi Zitoun, an advisor to the PM, posted on his Facebook page on Thursday a blacklist of journalists and media outlets that he alleges are leading a campaign against him as a member of the government. The utility of publishing such a list is unclear since of late attacks against journalists have become commonplace in Tunisia. Could this be an explicit call to the military wing of the Ennahda party to do their job and zip the mouths of the free press?

The president of the Tunisian republic, Moncef Marzouki, attacked his Ennahda allies last week, pointing out that their policies reminded him of the recently bygone era. The Tunisian president’s powers are limited. A courageous move nevertheless.

Free and open media should be part of the roadmap of the troika government in this period of transition. The democratization of Tunisia is highly dependent on a press that is supposed to serve the governed not the governors. The latter should remember that the attempt to stifle the media can lead to the emergence of robust new media, like those that accelerated the end of some of the most autocratic Arab dictators.

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