Freedom of speech still a distant dream in Tunisia
TUNIS // Tunisian journalists hoped that an era of freedom of speech was dawning after last year's uprising, fuelled by outspoken bloggers and activists and covered by the global media, toppled their autocratic leader.
Following the exit of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the tumbling of decades-old restrictions on reporters, dozens of people founded radio stations, newspapers and television channels.
An interim government set up a commission to decide how to regulate the new media and reform the old ones, many of which had been close to Ben Ali and his cronies, and, later passed two laws designed to enshrine freedom of speech and journalistic accountability.
But, in October, nationwide elections ushered in a government dominated by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, and a series of controversies unfolded. Journalists and bloggers were fined and jailed, the new laws were subject to review and the head of the media reform body resigned.
"The government has shown no political will for freedom of expression," said Marwan Maalouf of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting NGO, echoing a frustration felt by many of his colleagues.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been a number of high-profile cases that journalists allege have limited freedom of speech. The director of Nessma, a television station, was fined for screening the film Persepolis, which touches on religious issues.
The editor of Ettounisia newspaper was briefly detained after printing a photograph featuring a naked woman and two young men have been sentenced to more than seven years in prison for publishing material online that questions the tenets of Islam.
"I feel the government is not doing what they are supposed to now," said Ms Ramla Jaber, the managing director of Tunisia Live, an English-language news site. "They want to interfere in all the decisions that are made about the freedom of the press...and one of the reasons this revolution started was the freedom of the press, so I am a bit disappointed."
Of more concern than individual cases, whose outcomes are decided by judges who have considerable leeway to decide on sentences and punishment, is a sense that the hard-won legal underpinning of press freedom are being eroded.
The National Tunisian Journalists' Union this week decried a proposal by the ruling National Constituent Assembly to appoint one regulatory body to oversee all media, elected by its members. This would supersede the two laws - Articles 115 and 116 - passed last year, which included among other things a separate regulatory board for audio-visual media to be nominated by journalists.
"What happened is that these laws, 115 and 116, should have legislative power but they were not quite adopted by the government," said Hicham Snoussi, a jurist and activist who worked with the media reform committee set up last year and known by its French acronym, INRIC. The government, he said, had violated the legislation when politicians replaced the heads of a number of public broadcasting outlets earlier this year.
"We should respect some internationally agreed-upon norms," said Mr Snoussi, "and if we don't, we will move back towards dictatorship."
After more than a year of work, which included partnerships with the BBC and international media freedom organisations, INRIC produced a lengthy report in April this year with 60 of recommendations for reform of the media.
The report notes the prevalence of corruption in the media, a lack of training among journalists, a tendency towards sensationalism or the concept of media as a mouthpiece of government. It calls for the urgent establishment of independent regulatory bodies to address the problems.
"Unfortunately," the report reads, "the new government, born of the first democratic and pluralistic elections in the history of Tunisia, has been reluctant to implement the new legislation regulating the information sector." In early July, the head of the committee, Kamel Laabidi, stepped down from his position and announced that the committee "does not see the point in continuing its work".
The IFEX freedom of expression network, which has been working in Tunisia since 2004, produced a report last month which also called into question the National Constituent Assembly's commitment to freedom of expression.
Officials have responded angrily to criticism. Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, declared in a statement on August 6 that, "at the level of the media, the political parties and currents have begun stirring things up against each other using a language that would suggest we are at war".
At the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, the spokesman Chakib Darwish struck a conciliatory tone. "For me, the journalists have to be part of the reconstruction or reform," he said. "The first step to write into the constitution article that enshrine free expression with no limits, taboos, nothing."
However, Mr Darwish added, it was in keeping with international norms that there should be some "exceptions to freedoms". But he said that some recent punishments had, in his personal view, been harsh. "Hopefully, in future, we will have less strict laws," he said.
Updated: August 10, 2012 04:00 AM