Tunisia: A media led revolution?

Are we witnessing the birth of the second republic fueled by social media?

Silhouettes of people are seen on the Tunisian flag during a peaceful demonstration in the Ettadamen suburb of Tunis
New and social media was one of the driving forces that kept the protests alive, giving Tunisians an effective way to coordinate  [Al Jazeera]

Contrary to civil unrests in Tunisia during the last few years, the dramatic death of 26 year old university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi sparked off angry protests in many parts of the country and have attracted international media attention thanks to social media networks.

The dramatic events have escalated into more riots in Bizerte, Jandouba, Gasserine, Baja, Sfax, Nabeul, Hammamet, and even in the capital Tunis, among other towns and cities.

This emergency situation has compelled the government to say that they will swiftly kick-start development projects, namely in the southern deprived areas of the country.

President Ben Ali initially pledged 5 billion Tunisian dinars for the development of Sidi Bouzid and other towns. He then promised the creation of 300,000 new jobs for the next two years. In another major step, he sacked key ministers from the cabinet in an attempt to calm down his critics and buy time to bring the country back to order.

Faced with even more growing unrest (and in a latest move) the president promised to open up freedom of expression in the media, to free up political life, to bring to justice corrupt politicians and above all free the media and remove all restrictions on the internet.

Yet all these measure came in the eleventh hour. The mounting pressure, which turned into a revolution, has forced the president to flee the country.

The role of new media

In light of the dramatic development of events, on a considerable scale, it has become evident that new media have been playing a key role this time around in keeping the momentum going, and bringing the voices of the disengaged Tunisian youth to the attention of world media, and hence to international public opinion.

Mobile phones, blogs, YouTube, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds have become instrumental in mediating the live coverage of protests and speeches, as well as police brutality in dispersing demonstrations.

The internet in this case has assumed the role of a very effective uncensored news agency from which every broadcaster and news corporation have been able to freely source newsfeeds, raw from the scene.

Such developments have proven very significant in changing the rules of the game, of journalism production and dissemination of information in a country where the government historically keeps tight control on the media and where almost no platform is available for opinions critical of the political elite.

Decades of state media control

Article 1 of the Press Code in Tunisia provides for “freedom of the press, publishing, printing, distributing and sale of books and publications”. The Tunisian constitution asserts that the “liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly, and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law”.

Yet as early as 1956, with the birth of the first republic under the leadership of President Habib Bourguiba, the ruling government gained control over the press – and later over broadcasting. As a result almost all the media outlets remained propaganda tools in the hands of Bourguiba’s government and ruling party.

Under Ben Ali (who came to power through a coup in 1987) the media and government relationship got even worse. For a short period of time a few independent newspapers appeared, but their existence was short lived.

Television and radio have remained state controlled and primarily serving the ruling government. The Tunisian Radio and Television Establishment (ERTT) is state-run and operates Tunis 7 (satellite channel), and Canal 21 (terrestrial channel). However, the audiovisual landscape witnessed the launch of the first private TV channel (Hannibal TV) headed by Larbi Nasra on February 13, 2005. The channel broadcasts via satellite and terrestrially, and is aimed at expanding the audience’s choice by producing a variety of programmes.

Increase of state-owned radio channels

Three ‘independent’ radio stations have also been licensed which include: Radio Mosaique FM, Jawhara FM (caters mainly for youth programmes), and Zitouna FM – owned by Mohamed Sakhr Almatri – launched on September 13, 2007 and was dedicated to the recitation of the Quran, the Prophet Mohammad’s life and broadcasting tarawih prayers during Ramadan.

A fundamental role the state TV does is to promote the image of the president as a competent, successful and progressive leader. Almost half of the main evening news programme on TV7 or Channel 21 report on the everyday meetings, initiatives and engagements the president takes part in.

The emergence of a couple of ‘independent’ radio and television stations during the last few years has not improved the situation as the scope of freedom of expression remains controlled by the same regimental unwritten rules: No room for opposing opinions; it is a taboo to criticise the president, cabinet ministers, or government corruption; et al.

Civil society organisations, lawyers, academics, and trade unions do not have a platform to express their critical views on state media or ‘independent’ media.

The press has also had a stormy experience with tight censorship measures placed on them during the last few decades. Major newspapers in the country have developed self-censorship rules in order to survive, and they mainly report uncritically on the government policies.

Other international newspapers (Le Monde, Liberation, Le Figaro, Al-Quds Alarabi to name a few) that attempt to expose government corruption, human rights abuses and the country’s democratic deficit get censored.

According to Reporters without Borders, “journalists and human rights activists have been the target of constant bureaucratic harassment, police violence and surveillance by the intelligence services.” The government has direct control on the servers, and “the regime has become almost obsessive about control of news and information”.

Empty promises

In his presidential address of November 7, 2000, Ben Ali reinforced his commitment to free media as a value that enriches civil society: “It is pivotal that we give support and importance to the press. This sector has earned our attention for its role in reinforcing the pluralist and democratic path in our country and strengthening the components of civil society.”

In a meeting which included editors of national newspapers, the president of the Tunisian Journalists Association and the minister of communication, Ben Ali also expressed on May 3, 2000, his support for freedom of expression and his willingness to encourage and improve free and credible media in the country.

In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, the minister of human rights and communications Salah Eddine Maoui, expressed soon after his appointment on February 19, 2001 his concern about the poor media standards in Tunisia and promised a new vision which would promote civil liberties and human rights in the country.

Unfortunately that issue of Le Monde was banned from circulation in Tunisia. He further reiterated the same promises on May 5, 2001 by declaring “the end of pessimism” vis-à-vis the media in Tunisia, and anticipated that the country will witness “a transparency era where there is no way to conceal information from journalists and public opinion”.

Yet, ten years on, the same culture of control and coercion has persisted. In its report dated May 3, 2002, the Tunisian Journalists Association revealed the stark discrepancies between theory and practise in government communication policies.

The Freedoms Committee Report on: Freedom of the Press in Tunisia 2000-2002 noted that “the daily practise of the profession shows a huge gap between the official political stance and the reality of the profession, whose work is at a standard lower than the level that the president called for and worse than that aspired to by journalists.” The same concerns have been expressed during the last few years by Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, and Amnesty International, to name a few.

The reaction of the country’s political elite to criticism from the media or political opposition has been always aggressive. Repressive measures are always ready to be swiftly taken against political opponents. Activities of non-governmental organisations such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights, Young Lawyers Association, the Tunisian Bar, the Association of Democratic Women, the Tunisian Trade Union and the Tunisian Journalists Association, to name a few, do not get reported in the state media.

Civil society organisations also rarely find a space in the ‘independent’ press, particularly when it comes to covering hot issues. Since it published its report about the restrictions on freedom of expression and media control, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) has been under constant persecution and curtailment.

The challenge of satellite TV

The development of satellite technology and the mushrooming of TV channels available free-to-air has marked a turning point in the dissemination of information and the relationship between Arab state broadcasting and Arab audiences.

Tunisia is no exception. It is estimated that more than half of the TV audiences in Tunisia migrate every night via satellite TV to the rest of the world. Global TV broadcasting, headed by Al Jazeera, has become the refuge of people who look for uncensored information.

Zapping for news and current affairs analysis about Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and even sometimes to learn more about what is happening in Tunisia itself, characterise their viewing habits. Furthermore what people equally seek out are entertainment channels which provide an endless stream of various TV genres such as reality TV programmes, music videos, sitcoms, soaps and action films in various languages.

The recent unrests have given more prominence to satellite TV in the viewing habits of Tunisians. Al Jazeera, which was ahead of other international broadcasters in breaking the news, has become the most influential broadcaster in which critical information about news coverage in various parts of the country can be accessed.

Al Jazeera heavily relied on referencing Facebook pages and Youtube in reporting the raw events, which marked a key turning point in unveiling the bloodiness and horror of the manner with which the police had been dealing with the riots.

No wonder that Tunisians flocked to the social media networks, which fed and fuelled news stations like Al Jazeera, BBC Arabic, France 24, Al-Hiwar and other channels.

Reporting on the police brutality in dispersing a peaceful protest by actors and artists in front of the National Theatre, Fadhil Aljaaibi, a Theatre Director , told Al Jazeera that “I wished to have this statement made on our Tunisian TV. I am reporting about a protest that the artists today had in front of the national theatre and in which we were brutally attacked by the police…”

He also said “the government representative (Besaiss recently appeared in an Al Jazeera Arabic programme, the Opposite Direction) is not talking the truth. He is probably reporting about a different country… certainly not Tunisia.

“The gruesome picture of what is going on is completely different from the government’s version of events,” he added.

Satellite TV, in this case, has become the international public sphere (to borrow a term coined by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas), available not only for Tunisians in different parts of the world to express their views on the events, but also Tunisians living in Tunisia.

As opposing views cannot be expressed on state or any other broadcaster in the country, Al Jazeera has become the virtual space in which Tunisians debate the developments in various towns and cities. Through its various news as well as current affairs programmes the channel has facilitated such debates about the need to change, and the type of change people look for.

The ‘cyber war’ effect

The mushrooming of social networks on Facebook and Twitter was by far the most instrumental factor in the escalation of the recent events. Tens of thousands joined Facebook groups and got to know about the news developments and mobilised for further action.

On a positive note, this has partly kept these social networks independent from any external pressures and from the politics of media corporations, and has partly kept the protests independent in their nature, i.e. free from being ‘hijacked’ by political groups.

Students and professionals have led the way, and the trade union movement and the political parties followed.

Bloggers have proven that they can challenge not only the state media and other independent (self-censored) newspapers and radio stations, but also the government discourse on what is really happening.

On state media there has been systematic and organised silence, placing a blackout about the riots. During the first two weeks of the unrest the Tunisian main broadcaster Tunis 7 and Channel 21 completely steered away from mentioning news about the death of the two university graduates and the subsequent deaths of targeted civilians. They subsequently started a campaign of demonising the protester as thugs and outlaws.

In contrast, public defiance and the display of popular anger were sustained by new media outlets. Bloggers and Facebook pages have become sites of networking and spaces for exchanging and disseminating news about the protests.

Notices like, “Demonstration at 4pm, meet in town centre”, have become common features of social activism on Facebook pages. New media have proven effective and swift in circulating information among tens of thousands of protesters who are unable to use other means of communication to access the public en mass.

Namely when the government attempted to enforce curfews, social activists on the internet found such sites a very valuable communication means. One of the popular pages in Facebook and has over 12,000 members is “Your people are burning themselves, Mr President”.

Also the phenomenal success of Hamada Ben-Amor (nicknamed ‘The General’), a 22-year-old rapper, led the police to arrest him along with dozens of other activists. Through his video clip entitled ‘Rais Lebled’ (O country’s president) Ben Amor has been able to flare up the protests and mobilise tens of thousands of people, especially university students.

Faced with a fierce and unprecedented cyber war, and in an attempt to curb the influential impact of such networks, the government decided to employ new measures of hacking and jamming Facebook pages and personal home pages of activists.

Such measures included phishing for personal information and deleting content, in an attempt to disable the networks. ‘Error 404’, an error message that comes up on computer screens whenever someone’s account is hacked, became known to activists as ‘Ammar 404’, taking the name of the government’s internet censor.

Ultimately, one may argue that the US presidential elections which led to the victory of Barack Obama marked the first of its kind in political history in which Facebook and Twitter became instrumental in rallying support for the new president.

Will the January 2011 social unrests in Tunisia turn into the first peaceful revolution to be driven by social networking sites?

What is noteworthy so far is that bloggers and social activities on the internet and satellite TV have forced former president Ben Ali to flee the country. The subsequent caretaker government has promised to open up to the outraged public by freeing the media, securing justice for all, and an invitation to the ‘opposition’ for a free dialogue.

Will this unabated social activism lead to a real breakthrough in the country’s democracy, the birth of the Second Republic? 

Dr Noureddine Miladi is a senior lecturer in media and sociology at the University of Northampton, UK. He is editor of the Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research. He is also expert in Middle East and North African affairs, Arab media, new media and social change, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

He recently appeared on Inside Story on Saturday, January 15, 2010.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.