Tunisian journalists seek new angles

2011-05-03 15:25

Tunis - The fall of the police state in the Tunisian uprising in January has left journalists seeking new sources and points of reference for their work, demanding a right to the free press celebrated in Tuesday's World Press Freedom Day.

Journalists "have not yet had time to reevaluate themselves after so many years of the suppression of free speech and press freedom", said Kamel Labidi, president of the National Body for the Reform of Information and Communication (INRIC).

"There's no red line anymore and most of the media and journalists are striving to carry out their job properly, but much remains to be done since the pressures and oppression of the [Zine el Abidine] Ben Ali years caused serious damage," he added, referring to the ousted president.

Labidi was back in the north African country after 17 years in exile.

Years of censorship, interrogations, imprisonments, pressure on the media and threats against journalists have left a strong impact, and such pressure lasted for decades before the swift succession of events that led to the downfall of the Ben Ali regime, after 23 years.

Much of the press is still focused on those events and the wild moments and the winds of freedom that have blown away taboos and shattered the power of Ben Ali's propaganda machine.

Journalists were convening Tuesday in front of the municipal theatre in Tunis to plan for "a real code of professional conduct" as well as inserting "the right to inform" in the constitution, organisers said. They also plan to demand a reform of the press code and discuss the expected appearance of new independent newspapers.

Information not accessible

Journalist and blogger Sofiene Chourabi said that there have been "positive changes for the press", but regretted the "lack of will of the government to put in place legal guarantees to preserve the freedoms acquired."

The media scene, he added, "is almost the same, with the same media, and only three new weekly papers have been founded. We can't yet talk about pluralism."

In all, an estimated 1 600 journalists work in the country, of whom 1 200 are members of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), according to its president, Neji Bghouri.

Apart from radio stations, Tunisians also have access to news on the state television channels TV1 and Canal 21 and two private channels, Hannibal TV and Nesma TV. They also have the Internet, which is held to have played a decisive role in mobilising the popular uprising, mainly via Facebook.

Mounir Souissi, who works in a Tunisian news agency, deplores a lack of "professional work notably in media, some of which are still run by the pro-Ben Ali employers who oppressed journalists."

"Official sources remain very limited and the communications divisions of [government] ministries are questionable because the information is not yet accessible," he added.

Step by step, Tunisian journalists are carving themselves out "a well-defined space," but "changes have been of a quantitative rather than a qualitative nature," said Sofiene Ben Farhat, who works for the daily La Presse and denounced the predominance of inflated opinion pieces in "some papers" instead of hard news.

"We're waiting for strong signals of democracy like the setting up, for instance, of a body to regulate the audiovisual sector," Ben Farhat said, adding that in the period leading up to elections on July 24, there was a risk that propaganda would take precedence over the news.