This interview was held on November 26 during the Arab Free Press Forum in Tunis organised by WAN-IFRA. Orally translated by journalist Ghias Aljundi.
MB: How free is the media in Tunisia in 2013? How has it changed since Ben Ali’s time?
FB: The most important factor since 2010 has been the collapse of the fear establishment. For the most part, journalists are not afraid [of reprisals by security forces] any more, and this could contribute to establishing a free and diverse media in Tunisia. The revolution also opened the door wide for young journalists to emerge with their different and new perspectives. Hundreds of new media outlets and printed newspapers have emerged; 50 radio stations, 20 television broadcasters, dozens of websites. This has helped massively to break the monopoly of the state and business who controlled the media. Cooperative news agencies appeared and this helped to move citizens from consumers to participators in media decision-making.
MB: What about allegations that some media organisations are compromised by political bias?
FB: This dramatic change [in the media landscape] has had many complications in the transitional period. First, the intrusion of political money into media, money intended to influence media politically. This damaged the code of ethics in journalism, which has disappeared. Editorial boards have essentially disappeared. The businessmen who own the media agencies control them completely and act as if they were their own [editorial outlets].
On another point, for five decades the political police were the main threat to media freedom of expression in Tunisia. After the revolution new violators emerged; government-supported militias, supporters of the unions and of the criminal groups. In the last year, 320 attacks on media professionals and journalists have been recorded. Journalists have become less courageous; investigations of economic and administrative corruption have become less frequent, [as have] investigations into government performance and cases in torture in prisons and police custody - attacks mostly carried out by police and security forces.
MB: Have police and others been held accountable for human rights violations?
FB: Impunity is a big issue in Tunisia. Because of the economic difficulties and the social atmosphere, the government built connections with ex-regime criminals and have tried to share power with them. They have not only failed to bring criminals of past injustices to account, but have brought them back to power.
MB: An activist investigating human rights abuses by security forces said that the majority of the records have been destroyed or are in the hands of the security forces. Can these records be recovered?
FB: Records may have been destroyed, but that’s not the end of it. Activists and journalists have records to prove criminality. The government is not taking into consideration the fact that accountability doesn’t just die away. Look at Argentina; 20 years after crimes [‘disappearances’] were committed, the abusers were held to account.
MB: Two prominent opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed al-Brahimi, were assassinated in 2013. What do these killings signify?
FB: These assassinations are a clear message that supporters of the government want to end the first ever attempt to unify a broad-based opposition - the Third Way - [comprising] nationalists, liberals and leftists who would oppose the government and the remains of the [Ben Ali] regime.
Secondly, these actions were an attempt to blackmail the Tunisian people into one of two options. Either accept what the government is doing now and plans to do, or accept a chaotic society pervaded by elements of terrorism. After these assassinations, some government officials used rhetoric about the ‘Lebanonisation’ of Tunisia - that the country would become like Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
MB: What is the importance of a code of ethics for journalists in the transitional period?
FB: This is an essential point. There is growing talk by government officials about the focus on the ethical codes. They do this in order to justify attacks on journalists. They want to divert attention from one essential point which is freedom of information.
Three issues must be addressed: the protection of journalists; legislative reform; and training and education combined with the development of economic models for media institutions who aim to promote transparency, good judgement and responsibility.
Most of the work now focuses on enhancing freedoms, as this is the starting point. Freedoms are very fragile at the moment. We want laws to promote freedoms rather than restrict them.
Two laws relating to media freedoms were established after the revolution; Decree-Law 115 relating to the freedom of the printing press and publications, and Decree-Law 116 which established the audio-visual commission. In general these are progressive laws. But the judicial system in Tunisia doesn’t refer to these laws but relies on older laws from the prior regime. There are many cases of defamation law [Article 128 under the penal code] being used against journalists to stifle free speech, so the progressive laws are essentially dead.
We have adopted a strategy related to this. We said it’s not important to pass progressive laws alone, but also, the government must prevent the judicial system from interfering in media issues. We are also focusing on gender issues and strengthening the role of female journalists.
MB: You have been attending a forum on press freedom with delegates from across the Arab world. Do you think forums like this help in changing the media landscape?
FB: It’s important to exchange experience and knowledge. To run forums with different journalists from the Middle East and North Africa, and to acknowledge the implementation of different laws. This is important.
What is more important is solidarity among all journalists. A petition signed by 200 international journalists will have more influence than a single forum. This is where the freedom of the media begins.
Visit www.ctlj.org for more information on violations against journalists in Tunisia.