The freeing of the press - Monocolumn | Monocle


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18 January 2011

Last night, Tunisian state television showed protesters out on the streets calling for the party of the ex-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to be abolished and for veterans of the old regime to be excluded from the new interim government.

For a country that has been stifling dissent for decades and throwing people into jail for merely criticising the president, the evening news was revolutionary stuff.

One of the first things the interim government announced yesterday is the end of the notorious Information Ministry, which has kept the country’s media on a tight leash, limiting journalists’ access, banning discussion of subjects like Islamist movements or Muammar Gaddafi in neighbouring Libya, and telephoning senior editors regularly to warn them not to overstep the mark on other subjects.

Last year, Tunisia was in the bottom 15 of 178 countries ranked for freedom of the press by Reporters Without Borders – tellingly lower than countries such as Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Somalia and Libya.

So when the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, reportedly said yesterday: “We have decided to free all the people imprisoned for their ideas, their beliefs or for having expressed dissenting opinions,” it seemed a giant corner had been turned.

As if to confirm that point, Slim Amamou, a dissident blogger who was arrested under Ben Ali, has been made secretary of state for youth and sport. “Journalists are optimistic,” says Kamal ben Younes, editor in chief of Dar Assabah, one of the leading newspapers. “They are starting to criticise Ben Ali and his family.”

“But we are all aware this is a transition phase,” says ben Younes. Many of the key positions in the interim government are still held by members of Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally.

“Theoretically closing the information ministry is a good sign. It could mean that the government steps back from controlling the media. But it needs to be not just a change of form – it needs to be much deeper,” assets ben Younes.

The official organ of state repression may go, but what Tunisians will be waiting to see is whether the plain-clothed policemen in their trademark leather jackets will also now disappear. Until now they have been omnipresent and particularly when it came to stopping people attending unwelcome events or press conferences and generally intimidating journalists. I met a few of them in 2009 when they accosted a Monocle photographer and I as we attempted to photograph the street café scene on the Avenue Bourguiba. Apparently we were too close to the interior ministry for comfort.

After so many years of a culture of repression, it will take time for a real change of mindset in Tunisia. And all those plain-clothed policemen may not be too keen to give up their jobs.


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