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Tunisia: 'Free Until When'?

Posted: 10/05/2012 10:38

In October 2011, Reporters Without Borders, long banned in Tunisia, opened their bureau in Tunis. They chose to simultaneously launch a national campaign on freedom of speech's role in building a democracy. As a slogan they chose: "Free Until When?"

To me, this campaign is a call for soul searching; I remember that each time I came across one of its posters, simply showing a torn newspaper with the slogan of the campaign: "Free Until When", several questions brewed in my mind. That is why this campaign is important: it makes people think about free speech.

As we have celebrated the International Day of Freedom of Press, a few days ago, and after more than one year of the ousting of Ben Ali from Tunisia, Is there a real change? Were the freedoms of speech and press really improved?

After January 14th several Tunisians thought or had the impression that free speech is already acquired and that no one would be able to alter this new situation or touch this fundamental human right.

When it comes to media we have noticed a radical change. Our media went from being muzzled by the regime; generally avoiding tackling political issues, but operating instead as praise machine for the dictator's achievements before the revolution, media now is taking on all sensitive issues head on. TV channels, radio stations and newspapers opened the doors to people to debate and discuss everything under the Tunisian sun. When asked what is the great achievement of that "Jasmine Revolution" people generally answer: we gained our freedom of speech. We are free to talk.

With hindsight, the situation is not as bright as it might seem. After a period of revolutionary euphoria, during which all Tunisians have been celebrating the ousting of the dictator and enjoying the right to express their opinions and feelings freely, we are back to reality. Indeed even though some media took the side of the revolution- and they are few, others kept on using the same propaganda and manipulation methods inherited from Ben Ali's era. Those who chose to cheer against the revolution did it without acknowledging their mistakes or engaging in any self-criticism.

Media in Tunisia also suffers from he lack of professionalism among journalists as the latter got used to being merely tools implementing instructions and orders given to them from above. This was a terrible blow to Tunisian media as that state of affairs stifled creativity. Moreover, many journalists have been victims of violence while trying to covering events happening in the country. Many of them have been beaten or arrested by the police during demonstrations. Showing their press cards was of no avail as the security forces' mentality from the Ben Ali era still saw them as a nuisance to public order.

When it comes to freedom of expression, the situation is horrible. Cases of attacks on freedom of speech after January 14th 2011 are numerous. In May 2011, a group of lawyers launched a lawsuit against the Tunisian Internet Agency demanding the ban of pornographic websites. In November Nabil Karoui the head of the private channel Nessma, as well as some of his employees, faced trial for broadcasting the Franco-iranian cartoon "Persepolis; their "crime" was broadcasting of a foreign movie that is "attacking religious symbols", "disturbing public order and undermining the good morals." Other examples include a trial against a newspaper for publishing the photo of a half naked modal as well as a trial against two young men who wrote books in which they criticized Islam. And Islamists. They were condemned to 7 years and a half in jail.

Furthermore, Tunisians who are trying to express themselves and are criticizing the government are always facing violence. The majority of the peaceful demonstrations organized to pressure the new government have been routinely faced with police violence.

"Free Until When? " is an important question. Even though Tunisia seems to be the most successful country in its "revolution", even if Tunisians seem to be enjoying their freedom. The reality is much more nuanced. The picture is gloomy. Tunisians should keep on fighting for their real freedom or risk sliding back into authoritarian rule, or worse..

 
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