Intoxicated by Freedom Reinventing Tunisia at Record Speed

Tunisians are intoxicated by their newfound freedom. The media is publishing long-suppressed sentiments, while activists form new parties and young people hold heated debates on street corners. But the country is facing huge challenges in its bid to become a modern democracy, and it will hardly be possible to stick to the deadline for new elections.

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By and in Tunis

The 18 men and women have formed a circle, with some sitting and others standing. They are holding one of the first editorial meetings ever convened at La Presse, a daily newspaper in the Tunisian capital Tunis. They discuss the tremendous things happening in their county and what should appear in tomorrow's paper.

They are intoxicated with newfound energy. Now they want to do all the things they have never done before. They want to tell the stories that will stir the country, stories about the little bookshop around the corner displaying formerly banned books, about how stores are gradually reopening their doors but food shortages continue, and about how people on the street are criticizing the new government. All of that is supposed to appear in the next day's edition.

They also want to write articles about the social networking Internet platform Facebook, which has become an alternative source of news for the country's youth. They are even considering downloading and printing images circulating online of police violence and destruction from all over the country.

Still, they are not completely sure how far they should allow themselves to go. They debate and argue over whether they should criticize individual ministers who are particularly incompetent and whether they should identify all the authors of opinion pieces by name.

Euphoria and Apprehension

Faouzia Mezzi is leading the meeting. While the autocratic former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still ruled the country, there were times when she was banned from writing articles. Today, she is having a hard time restraining those staff members who would prefer to change everything immediately. "We first need to see if we can even publish a newspaper at all," she says. "Be patient."

At the time, it had only been five days since Ben Ali, Tunisia's dictator for 23 years, fled the country, and only the fifth day that the country had enjoyed freedom of the press. No one gave it to these journalists; they simply took it. While the country was rising up against the regime, they launched their own revolution.

But there appear to be limits to the new freedom. The interim government shut down the country's most popular private television station, Hannibal TV, on Sunday night. The New York Times, quoting Tunisia's state news agency, reported that the government had arrested the station's owner, which it accused of treason for broadcasting "false information likely to create a constitutional vacuum and destabilize the country." A spokesman for the station, which had criticized Ben Ali's government in the past, said that it had been shut down without warning and called the move a violation of freedom of the press.

By Monday morning, however, the station had resumed broadcasting, apparently after an opposition member of the interim government intervened. Observers in Tunisia told the New York Times that the network's shutdown damaged the interim government's credibility and said that the fate of the station would be seen as a test of the state's commitment to press freedom.

Practicing Self-Censorship

La Presse, which appears in both French and Arabic versions, is one of the country's oldest newspapers. Like almost all media sources in Tunisia, it is government-owned, meaning the state appoints its senior editors. During the dictatorship, those editors would dictate the issues to be covered, as well as censor anything that could upset the regime. Naturally, the journalists also practiced self-censorship. Indeed, until the revolution, La Presse was little more than a bland mouthpiece for government statements.

On Friday, January 14, 2011, even before Ben Ali and his family had been chased out of the country, the paper's staff allowed itself to be infected by the same lust for freedom that had gripped the entire country. They stripped the editor in chief of power and designated a group of 10 people to be in charge of managing the paper.

The former editor in chief still has his office with its leather chair and he can be spotted skulking along the corridor, but he no longer has any say. The journalists formerly under his charge have been busy discovering what it means to live in a free society -- just like people throughout Tunisia these days.

Back at the meeting, Olfa Belhassine from the paper's culture section proposes an editorial entitled "Who's Afraid of Press Freedom?" She adds that, in her 20 years of working in the media, she has always dreamed of writing just such an article. The next day, it appears in the paper.

An Orderly Revolution

In the newspaper's offices on the Rue Ali Bach Hamba in Tunis, you can sense all of the emotions the Tunisians have experienced since driving their dictator out of the country. There is the euphoria that has broken out as people look forward to a new era. But there is also the fear that it could all soon be over. With each passing day, the fear dissipates a little.

In the week since Ben Ali was toppled, Tunisians have experienced a social transformation of terrifying speed. Each day, those in power make new concessions to the protesters on the streets. On Tuesday, January 18, Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister who had briefly served as acting president, left the old ruling RCD party. On Thursday, he was followed by the rest of the ministers. Then, the party's central committee was dissolved, and a minister from the old regime stepped down. In its first meeting, the new cabinet resolved to grant amnesty to all political prisoners and to give legal standing to all political parties, including those of the Islamists.

It is an orderly revolution. The streets are still swept, and the streetcars still keep to their schedules while winding their way through the crowds. The capital's main railway station made it through the protests with only a bit of fire damage. A ticket inspector there is proud that not a single long-distance train was cancelled.

Saved by the Military

At least in the minds of many Tunisians, the military saved the country. In just a few days' time, they succeeded in subduing the murderous forces loyal to the departed dictator and putting the police in their place. Last week, when it looked like the transitional government might suddenly collapse again, many were even hoping that the army would intervene. But it remained in the background.

Toward the end of last week, the situation appeared to have stabilized, although there were still tanks on the streets, and soldiers were stationed along the major promenades and in front of government buildings.

But the situation in the capital Tunis remains tense. On Monday, police used tear gas on protesters who had defied an overnight curfew to gather in front of the prime minister's office, where they shouted anti-government slogans. The demonstrators are unhappy that many of Ben Ali's cronies are still in power. Schools were due to reopen after being closed during the unrest, but teachers reportedly went on strike in a protest against the interim government. Some students apparently joined protests instead of going to school.


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