Televising the Revolution Tunisia's Sudden Press Freedom

Tunisian media have witnessed an abrupt and jarring change: After years of oppressive censorship, all restrictions have vanished. Newspapers report freely, journalists work through the night -- and it seems as if every Tunisian wants to talk politics.


By in Tunis

"Castles in France, Bank Accounts in Switzerland, Real Estate in Argentina!" screams a headline on the front page of a Tunisian newspaper. "We've begun the hunt for Ben Ali's riches," reads the subtitle on Wednesday's edition of Al Chourouk, which means "dawn."

A competing paper wants to attract readers, too. It shows a photo of a person going up in flames. The story tells about the jobless young academic who set himself on fire and sparked a month of street demonstrations that brought down the Tunisian government last week -- only to inspire similar self-immolations across the Arab world. The foreign suicides are meant to start more revolutions, according to the newspaper As Sarih, which roughly means "unvarnished" or "the raw truth."

Both of Tunisia's largest papers have undergone a radical change since last Friday. A portrait of the country's former leader, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, used to adorn their front pages. Today they've turned on him with a vengeance.

'All the Dams Have Broken'

Ben Ali's escape from the country last weekend was zero hour for Tunisia's freedom of the press. The next important step was taken by the interim government. "The Information Ministry will not be re-staffed," declared Tunisia's new interior minister, Ahmed Fria. "The press is free." Tunisia leaped from the bottom of annual rankings of media freedom in the Arab world to the very top. Lebanon -- until now -- was traditionally the best place for journalists to work in the region.

"All the dams have broken," says a bleary-looking Shekir Bisbes. Since the regime collapsed the radio reporter for Tunisia's most popular private broadcaster, Mosaique FM, has hardly been home. The station has switched from reporting three or four news bulletins per day to round-the-clock live coverage. Political analysis and reports from the street alternate with call-in shows: The hunger of listeners for information is as keen as their eagerness to chat. After 23 years of enforced silence, Tunisians like nothing more than talking politics.

Many staffers at Mosaique FM don't go home even to sleep. "Our technicians have moved here," says Bisbes, showing a conference room full of mattresses.

A Happy Man

In spite the lack of sleep, Bisbes is a happy man these days. At last he can ply his trade. "When I started reporting live from the demonstrations, I felt like a real journalist for the first time," he says. But he wants to keep a cool head. "We're being careful to report in a balanced way, so we don't throw in with just one side," he says. But in a debate over the legitimacy of the interim government, there was only one worthwhile position. "We were on the people's side," he says.

Bisbes enjoys his new role but warns against exaggerating the power of Tunisia's newly liberated journalists. For decades the people were used to learning about the real situation on the ground without the help of a trustworthy media. "Now everyone is talking about how this was an 'Al-Jazeera' revolution," Bisbes complains. "But that's unbelievably exaggerated. Facebook, Twitter and Al-Jazeera all just amplified an impulse that came from the people themselves." Shortly after the unrest started, Al-Jazeera, the TV news channel based in the gulf state of Qatar, began intensive coverage.

Nuredine Butar, the editor-in-chief at Mosaique FM, spent years under intense pressure from the government -- raids, threatening nighttime phone calls, a constant fear of going to jail. "We tried to produce as much good journalism as possible within the limits set for us," he says. Sometimes it didn't work. To give an example, he roots out an old fax.

It's dated October 2010, when a kidnapping scandal broke. The nephew of President Ben Ali was locking horns with a competitor over an export license. When the competitor wouldn't back down, the nephew arranged for the man's young son to be kidnapped. The news was passed on from person to person and then the radio station jumped on the story. The next morning a fax arrived: A judge had forbidden Mosaique FM to follow the story any further.

Yes, It Was State Propaganda

Just a week ago, the main news program of the Tunisian state TV broadcaster was a potent cure for insomnia. Every evening it started with long reports about Ben Ali's day: The president met with his ministers; the first lady dines with embassy wives. Five years ago Walid Abdallah took a job at channel TV7 anyway. "Since then, my family has always accused me of selling my soul," the TV reporter says.

For this reason last Saturday was extremely special for him. When he came home from work after the fall of Ben Ali, his mother was overjoyed. "Suddenly she's full of pride," says the 34-year-old. Hours earlier, the broadcaster had switched its political stance. Union members on staff went before the cameras to admit they had produced nothing but state propaganda for years. They were done with that now, they said. They would also change the broadcaster's name: Instead of TV7 -- which referred to Ben Ali's seizure of power on Nov. 7, 1987 -- the channel would be called National Tunisian TV.

The name change went against the will of the company's directors. "They wanted to keep everything the way it had been," says Abdallah. Like the bosses, many top staff also had close ties to the regime. "Friends and relatives of party bigwigs all got cushy jobs with us," Abdallah claims. Those who were loyal to the government have now, suddenly, become the disadvantaged. "They used to set the tone around here, but now they seem kind of meek," he says. He doubts they'll last long. "The government loyalists still have jobs here," he says. "For now."


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