Me­dia free­dom a bal­anc­ing act in Tu­nisia

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY MOUNIR SOUISSI

Tu­nisia, birth­place of the Arab Spring, faces a dilemma as it strug­gles to rec­on­cile na­tional se­cu­rity and me­dia free­dom in a coun­try fac­ing a rise in ji­hadist un­rest.

The de­bate has been rag­ing for weeks in Tu­nisia, where par­lia­ment in Jan­uary 2014 rat­i­fied a new con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tee­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion af­ter decades of au­thor­i­tar­ian and op­pres­sive rule.

“Ter­ror­ism and free­dom of the press are new to Tu­nisia,” said Mo­hamed Fehri Chelbi, a pro­fes­sor at IPSI, a uni­ver­sity that trains jour­nal­ists.

As a re­sult, he said, when vi­o­lence breaks out the me­dia and the gov­ern­ment fre­quently is­sue con­flict­ing and con­fus­ing re­ports.

The lat­est ex­am­ple was on May 25 when gun­fire was heard from Bou­choucha army bar­racks in Tu­nis, near par­lia­ment and the Bardo Na­tional Mu­seum where ji­hadist gun­men killed 21 for­eign tourists and a po­lice­man in March.

The me­dia broke the news, with re­ports of a “ter­ror­ist attack.”

Some said the shoot­ing was the re­sult of clashes be­tween troops in­side the bar­racks and armed men in an ad­ja­cent neigh­bor­hood, while oth­ers claimed that women were among the as­sailants.

Of­fi­cials quickly put an end to the ca­coph­ony of in­for­ma­tion say­ing that a sol­dier who “had fam­ily and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems” seized a gun and killed eight com­rades be­fore be­ing shot dead.

The in­te­rior min­istry in­sisted the ram­page was not linked to “ter­ror­ism.”

The mul­ti­tude of con­flict­ing re­ports from the me­dia sparked anger among so­cial net­work users, with one tweet­ing: “UR­GENT: jour­nal­ists are ter­ror­iz­ing the pop­u­la­tion.”

‘Hasty re­ports’

De­fense min­istry spokesman Bel­has­sen Oues­lati crit­i­cized the me­dia for its “haste” in pub­lish­ing “er­ro­neous in­for­ma­tion and con­tra­dic­tory re­ports ... that trig­gered public con­cern.”

Me­dia out­lets hit back, say­ing they were only do­ing their job.

They also crit­i­cized the au­thor­i­ties for hav­ing is­sued con­flict­ing casualty tolls and con­tra­dic­tory in­for­ma­tion about the March 18 mu­seum attack.

“Why are we be­ing in­sulted and dis­cred­ited,” wrote the news web­site Busi­ness News, which had claimed that women were among as­sailants on Bou­choucha bar­racks be­fore cor­rect­ing its re­port.

“We are only do­ing our job by re­port­ing the news and quot­ing of­fi­cial or re­li­able sources,” it said in an opin­ion piece.

Tu­nisia’s me­dia has been un­der scru­tiny ever since the end of the 2011 revo­lu­tion that top­pled au­to­cratic pres­i­dent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose regime muz­zled the press.

Au­thor­i­ties have re­peat­edly ac­cused the me­dia of “blun­ders” while jour­nal­ists have charged that the ad­min­is­tra­tion lacks trans­parency.

In 2013, the me­dia came un­der heavy crit­i­cism af­ter they pub­lished pic­tures of the bod­ies of sol­diers killed in an am­bush by ji­hadists.

Pro­pa­ganda

Dur­ing a sem­i­nar or­ga­nized by the in­te­rior min­istry to dis­cuss “the me­dia and ter­ror­ism,” of­fi­cials cau­tioned jour­nal­ists against bad­ger­ing the fam­i­lies of vic­tims.

“Press free­dom should not be­come a pre­text” to hound fam­i­lies of sol­diers and the po­lice, in­te­rior min­istry spokesman Mo­hamed Ali Aroui said at the sem­i­nar.

Aroui also said a news­pa­per which had “sug­gested that ter­ror­ists are win­ning” against the se­cu­rity forces could serve as “pro­pa­ganda for ter­ror­ism.”

Some se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, as well as po­lice unions, have also urged jour­nal­ists en­sure they place “the na­tional in­ter­est be­fore any scoop.”

But the Tu­nis Cen­tre for Press Free­dom, a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion, warned that such calls can be danger­ous be­cause jour­nal­ists are not sup­posed to re­flect gov­ern­ment views.

“A jour­nal­ist has the right to pro­mote val­ues such as the battle against ter­ror­ism ... but it is not his job to wage war by proxy... or to be an in­stru­ment of gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions,” said Walid Me­jri, a jour­nal­ist with the weekly Akher Khabar.

Fa­hem Boukad­dous, a mem­ber of the Na­tional Syn­di­cate of Tu­nisian Jour­nal­ists, said the me­dia should work to be more re­li­able to avoid pres­sure from au­thor­i­ties.

“The au­thor­i­ties could ex­ploit mis­takes com­mit­ted by jour­nal­ists to put pres­sure on the me­dia and jus­tify the need to im­ple­ment leg­is­la­tion that could prove danger­ous for the press,” he said.

The gov­ern­ment sub­mit­ted to par­lia­ment this year a draft an­titer­ror­ism law and a se­cu­rity bill which have sparked con­cern that they could un­der­mine free­dom of in­for­ma­tion.

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