Walking down the street or going from house to house in my native Tunis reminds me how much Tunisians love to talk. Before the revolution, we talked about football. Since January 2011, we have been talking about politics, the economy and unemployment. Free speech seems to be on every street corner. This is an amazing turnaround when you consider that until recently, there were some people who didn’t even dare talk to themselves.
Looking at Tunisian media today, though, one might believe the freedom of the press to be in jeopardy. The owner of the Tunisian television channel Nessma was fined for broadcasting the film Persepolis, which was controversial because it depicted God. And journalists from the newspaper Ettounsia were arrested for publishing a picture of a topless woman that had circulated widely online.
The country is also in the midst of a democratic transition and there are tensions between different political factions, as well among citizens.
Prior to the revolution, journalists lacked the freedom to criticise the government and public officials – and had few opportunities for professional training. With the overthrow of former President Ben Ali in January 2011, there has been a dramatic reversal of the strict limitations media professionals faced before. Journalists, who are still learning how to equip themselves for their role, sometimes struggle with this new freedom, and how to cover different perspectives while providing objective reporting.
Today, media outlets are beginning to become more balanced in how they cover events and to make room for multiple points of view. For instance, the French-language daily newspaper La Presse now includes opinion pages, which are constantly filled with letters to the editor from ordinary citizens.
The independent collective blog Nawaat.org recently ran a campaign using billboards, newspaper inserts and television ads promoting the idea that the “freedom of the press is not a slogan, it’s a culture.” “We publish all points of view as long as they are respectful of others”, explained the Nawaat.org team.
And on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO held a conference in Tunis on the current state of journalism and its challenges. Organising such an event in Tunisia was highly symbolic. The event was a boost to Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, and reinforced the idea that a free press is essential both to the country and to others looking to it as a model.
The main roles of the press are to inform, educate and entertain, while providing a forum for multiple points of view. But it must go beyond even this to take on another role: allowing people to build bridges of understanding. Informing invites listening, which can help individuals understand and resolve social conflicts.
In this spirit, Sonia Bahi, journalist
and Editor-in-Chief of Baya.tn, a website for and about women, was honoured for her article: “Can we give the Tunisian government a chance?” which focused on the responsibility of both the government and citizens to help move Tunisia forward.
Bahi is one of many journalists who have now participated in professional journalism training programmes. For instance, the international conflict transformation NGO, Search for Common Ground, whose workshop Bahi attended, and the media development organisation, Media in Cooperation and Transition, have offered trainings to young Tunisian journalists to improve their professional skills and provide an opportunity to reflect on the role of media during this transition period.
When journalists do not only focus on what went wrong when covering a particular story, or second guess individuals’ motives, they can support progress for society as a whole. And when it comes to covering contentious issues, dialling down the debate by writing in a constructive and objective style allows individuals to hear each other and find solutions.
“I learned many things by working more constructively: don’t make assumptions based on popular beliefs, don’t forget to listen to different points of view . . . errors that Tunisian journalists regularly make because of a lack of training. I think that writing differently, changing our habits and producing writing that is better constructed and more professional will allow us to move forward”, Bahi explained.
In general, Tunisian journalists seem to believe they should play a positive role in society, and calm rather than inflame tensions. Debate between different groups does not necessarily have to lead to confrontation, but can help foster authentic pluralism.
The adoption of a new press law and the upcoming establishment of an Independent High Authority of Audiovisual Communication will promote progress along these lines. These steps will institutionalise a code of ethics that will ensure there is room to express a wide range of opinions. Finally, genuine journalistic ethics are emerging in Tunisia, helping journalists move forward and participate as part of a healthy democracy.
* Sana Sbouai is a Tunisian journalist
for the online media group Nawaat.org. This article originally appeared in the Common Ground News Service.