Tunisia: Social Media Lift the Silence

Tunis – After 23 years of enforced silence, media professionals and artists in Tunisia are enjoying a period in which their freedom of expression is being respected for the first time.

Hundreds of cyber-activists from across the Arab world gathered in the birthplace of the Arab Spring last week at the third meeting of Arab bloggers to discuss the role of social media and cyber-activism during popular revolts that toppled dictators in North Africa.

Meeting in Tunis, the conference also reflected on new challenges facing countries in a transitional democracy. Tunisia is due to hold constituent assembly elections on Oct. 23.

During the nearly two-decade reign of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia maintained the title of being one of the worst environments in the world for media professionals.

In 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Tunisia among the ten worst places to be a blogger. Popular social-networking and video-sharing sites like Facebook and YouTube were intermittently blocked, and online journalists and bloggers were routinely monitored, harassed and jailed.

“As soon as the unrest started I became very politically active on Facebook and because of it members of the intelligence service came to my home one day while I was at a demonstration to question me. They told my mother that my name was on a list with the Ministry of Interior and that I should be careful,” said 24-year-old filmmaking student Khaled Khafi in an interview with IPS.

“The incident terrified me but I still continued attending demonstrations, which was very dangerous because maybe the snipers they had positioned on top of the buildings have your picture and if spot you they may kill you.”

According to a new study by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam (PITPI) titled ‘Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring’, social media played a central role in shaping political debates, building extensive social networks and organising political action.

In Tunisia, conversations about revolution and democracy on blogs, Facebook and the popular micro- blogging site Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests.

Following Ben Ali’s resignation, Tunisians were sending nearly 2,200 tweets per day, and the success of their ‘Jasmine Revolt’ aided in creating a discussion throughout the Middle East and North Africa over the ability to force long-time leaders to relinquish power.

“Censorship of information was one of the strongest pillars of the Ben Ali system,” 24-year-old university student and journalist Asma Ghribi told IPS. “One of the key reasons why the Tunisian revolution succeeded was that we were able to stifle that control, which eventually led to the system’s collapse.”

The study found that efforts by the Ben Ali government to shut down the Internet incited more public activism as those who were actively following or sharing information via social media eventually made their way to the streets.

“Social media wasn’t the main impetus that caused the uprising. It was a succession of many events, but social media tools helped in raising awareness amongst Tunisian citizens,” adds Ghribi. It also provided a platform for debating issues that couldn’t be discussed publicly.”

“Now it’s more about freedom than money to make films because they used to implement all kinds of laws to prevent anything that bothered the system from being released,” adds Khafi.

“Since the revolution, the Ministry of Interior has granted operations licences to 103 newspapers and magazines including 41 weeklies, 34 monthlies and 10 dailies. I just hope that the level of censorship, which forced us to remain silent has really been destroyed so that in the future we’ll be free enough to make the kind of films we want.”

Detentions, firings from jobs, physical assaults and arbitrary police surveillance forced more than 100 Tunisian journalists into exile before the former regime’s collapse. Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitution, but the former government used several laws and provisions to restrict these rights in practice.

Last month, Tunisia’s High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolutionary Objectives (HARRO) approved the final draft of the country’s new Press Code.

Once approved by the transitional government, the new code will ensure journalists right to information, confidentiality of sources, freedom of dissemination and an ability to express their opinions without fear of reprisal.

“Before, independent journalists and media outlets were not allowed to exist but now we are able to film, write and speak about whatever we want without anyone interfering in our work,” Tunisian host of Radio Express FM and blogger Zied Mhirsi told IPS.

“Tunisia lived in isolation for so long, and we didn’t invest in connecting with the global stage but the revolution brought us a lot of exposure, which means that as media professionals it’s up to us to rise to the occasion by providing uncensored information about what’s happening in our country.”

“In this new climate the only red lines we have are our ethics, which means that journalists must remain biased, objective and stick to the facts without outside influence,” says Ghribi. “Media professionals have a great responsibility because we control the kind of information that’s being filtered to Tunisians.”