Tunisian media needs reform from the inside

Immediately after the 14 January uprising, Tunisian journalists have enjoyed newfound freedom in print and broadcast media, which under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had been tightly controlled. Although we, Tunisian journalists, accomplished much to be proud of, this newfound freedom might turn to be a mere illusion.

Some positive and encouraging steps have taken place so far. Almost a hundred new publications have opened and a dozen local FM radios have been authorised since January 2011. Many applications for new television channels have been issued, two high commissions were created to review the press codes that, under Ben Ali’s regime shaped coverage and stipulated fines and prison sentences against violators of the old media legislation. But all that did not have any positive impact on the media content, on the journalists’ working conditions, or on the press freedom.

Even after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the majority of journalists in the Tunisian media are still unable to tackle real issues like corruption and the economy, to differentiate between freedom and chaos, and to assess those businesses and investors who are corrupt but who, through advertising and buying large numbers of subscriptions, help their companies survive and thus keep journalists and editors in their jobs.

Recent experience shows that some media professionals went from being victims of the former regime’s censorship machine to another form of censorship in the shape of training being denied, which is vital to media prosperity.

One of the results is that, today, we often hear people saying that the media is not telling them the truth about the political reality on such key issues as the country’s security, unemployment or political parties. For months now, a lot is being said about the reform of the media legislation, about the interference of the executive power in the media content and structures.

But very few are talking about basic training of journalists, about everyday violations of ethics and even the law, about the journalists’ working conditions including their wages, about the growing number of media illicitly and illegally financed by political parties and politicians, and about the ways to move from a government to a public media.

Refusing to submit to any pressure compelling them to work in a corrupt world is a first step towards reform. Rejecting any form of government interference in their job is the beginning of their war against censorship. Taking the initiative and tackling the real problems of the media are essential for keeping the media free and enable it get rid of old-fashioned techniques and corrupt decision-makers.

But more important than showing disagreement, even enmity, with the Islamist-lenient Tunisian government or unconditional support to it, the real debate Tunisian media needs to launch is, today, greater self-criticism and more in-depth self-assessment.

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