Q&A: Amira Yahyaoui on press freedom and fake news

Rights activist and blogger on censorship and the state of media six years after the revolution that shook the world.

Tunisian human rights activist, Amira Yahyaoui.
Amira Yahyaoui is the founder of Al Bawsala, a human rights NGO [Gallo/Getty]

Paris, France – Hailed as one of the most influential Arab women in the world, Tunisian Amira Yahyaoui is a self-described “human rights extremist”.

She rallies against censorship and fights for free speech.

Exiled from Tunisia while protesting against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she moved to France where she remained stateless for a few years until the longtime leader stepped down.

Al Jazeera spoke with Yahyaoui in Paris, where she addressed UNESCO’s 2017 Journalism Under Fire conference, on the subjects of censorship, “fake news” and the state of journalism in Tunisia.

Al Jazeera: How far back does your work as human rights activist in Tunisia go?

Amira Yahyaoui: I was an activist before the revolution and mostly part of the crowd against internet censorship. I had to live in exile for a few years, returning to Tunisia after the revolution to set up Al Bawsala, a public policy and accountability NGO.

The NGO monitors public institutions and publishes what’s happening in the public sphere online: everything is tweeted and put on Facebook for the thousands of people who are following us on the internet.

We closely followed the discussion on the new Tunisian Constitution. It was great to witness a country re-write its history.

WATCH: Tunisia – A model of democratic transition (2:40)

We made sure that the drafting of the Constitution was transparent and we pushed for the articles to be as close as possible to those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Tunisia eventually achieved.

Today, Bawsala is one of the biggest NGOs in Tunisia and even in the Arab world. It carries on monitoring the parliament as well as Tunisian town halls.

Al Jazeera: Tunisia is still politically unstable. Can you tell us more about the situation there?

Yahyaoui: The political situation is as complicated as everywhere else in the world, but what’s interesting is that it’s complicated because of democracy.

There is a real instability but it's a democratic instability in the sense that we're still a country trying to define itself


While we were used to being ruled by a single party, today we have more than 160 political parties, we have debates, we have changes of governments. We’ve had several presidents and many prime ministers since the revolution.

So there is a real instability, but it’s a democratic instability in the sense that we’re still a country which is trying to define itself, trying to find out what is the best government and how to rule 11 million people, each with an opinion they wish to express.

When you observe the situation from Tunisia, it’s easy to get worried and wonder why we can’t get a government that can last five years.

But if I look at the situation from outside, I feel happy because we had a successful revolution and can call ourselves a democracy.

Tunisia is currently the only democracy in the Arab world, and it’s a democracy not because we have written documents, but because we have 11 million who are no longer silent.

Al Jazeera: Has press freedom improved since charges were brought against Noureddine Mbarki, an editor who published a photo of the Sousse attacker?

Yahyaoui: A few journalists have faced issues for different reasons but we can’t compare the current situation with what it used to be (under Ben Ali).

When it comes to freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Tunisia, we have what you call a “first world problem”, namely businessmen who are trying to buy media outlets.

It remains difficult for the ruling class to think about throwing a journalist in jail, because civil society is powerful and people will get mobilised if there is an attempt to intimidate journalists


The other problem is the proliferation of “fake news” against which we are fighting, but not by going back to the previous rules of censorship. We believe the only solution to fake news is to educate people and make them distinguish between what’s fake and what’s real.

READ MORE: Fake news ‘symptomatic of crisis in journalism’

In relation to the attack on journalists, there is still one institution you can’t touch in Tunisia, and it’s the army. But it remains nonetheless very difficult for the ruling class to think about throwing a journalist in jail, because civil society is powerful and people will get mobilised if there is an attempt to intimidate journalists.

Al Jazeera: So Tunisian journalists don’t face any pressure?

Yahyaoui: I can’t think of a single journalist in jail today; we don’t have any.

But there are pressures in the sense that the purchase of media by businessmen for political reasons leads to situations where some journalists get fired from a newspaper because they don’t want to follow a certain editorial line.

But we are no longer in the dark years of Tunisia where journalists were sent to jail in their dozens.

Tunisia's media is enjoying a new lease of life since the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 [EPA]
Tunisia’s media is enjoying a new lease of life since the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 [EPA]

Al Jazeera: Has the country’s counterterrorism laws affected the work of journalists and activists?

Yahyaoui: I think the civil society was very attentive and active during the adoption of the anti-terror legislation to counter the attempts to implement authoritarian measures under the cover of protecting people against the terrorist threat.

But I think the main issue for Tunisian journalists is the access to information that is deemed too sensitive to share by the authorities.

Now it’s up to Tunisia to find the right balance between assessing correctly what could put a source in danger or jeopardise an anti-terrorist operation, and providing information to the public.

But you know in Tunisia, anyone who has a phone can film anything and put it on the internet. We saw it during the terrorist attacks when amateur videos were put online showing police officers arresting terrorists.

What is difficult for journalists is to access detailed information during military and police crackdowns.

Al Jazeera: You spoke about fake news earlier. Who is responsible for spreading it?

Yahyaoui: Businessmen who want to get involved in politics, there is no doubt about it. All Tunisians know it.

Most businessmen who are trying to become politicians buy five or six media outlets and start spreading fake news against their political opponents.

Al Jazeera: So it’s done through official media channels?

Yahyaoui: They buy real media outlets – radio, newspapers, that’s the worst part of it. This is thanks to a new law on the creation of media that allows anyone with money to buy a media outlet.

Of course, the law in itself is not the problem, but we need to find solutions.

Al Jazeera: Who are Tunisia’s whistle-blowers and investigative journalists to watch out for at the moment?

Yahyaoui: We have two amazing websites – “Nawaat” and “Inkyfada“, which are doing amazing work.

Inkyfada does “slow media” and they were one of the media outlets that had access to the Panama Papers.

READ MORE: Support network set up to protect African whistle-blowers

Both of these websites have a sharp and professional culture of investigative journalism, which has an impact even at an international level.

I should add that a few days ago, Tunisia voted for a law to protect whistle-blowers. I believe it’s one of the strongest laws ever voted to protect whistle-blowers.

Al Jazeera: In 2016, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) pulled Tunisia up 30 places in its Press Freedom Index. How do you explain that?

Yahyaoui: The adoption of the Constitution guaranteed for the first time the protection of freedom of expression and press freedom.

But the RSF press freedom index is quite complex, it’s not just about the laws that are enshrined in your constitution, it’s about seeing whether the law is correctly implemented. It’s about comparing the situation across a number of years between what we used to be and what we are now.

One must remember that Tunisia, during the last 10 years of Ben Ali’s governance before the revolution, was amongst the bottom 10 in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

There is still a lot of room for improvement and we need to make more efforts, but the situation has definitely improved.

Read more from our Journalism Matters series here.

Source: Al Jazeera