Thirty five Tunisian journalists participated in the workshops from across Tunisia. The students spoke passionately about how Facebook had been used throughout what they call the ‘dignity revolution’. “We used Facebook to report protests, to tell our people what the state-owned media was hiding from them”, says Naima of Arabisque TV.
During the Tunisian uprisings, social media became a tool of revolution. Facebook provided a space in which journalists could operate freely without any editorial, governmental or regime control and was used by journalists and citizens as a platform to communicate information, facts and events.
According to a recent report published by researchers at the Dubai School for Government, the total number of Facebook users in the Arab World has almost doubled from 14.7 million to 27.7 million over the time period from April 2010 to April 2011, with the number of users increasing by 30% in the first quarter of 2011 alone. Tunisia is part of this exponential expansion with around 25% of the Tunisian population now using Facebook. Almost 90% of Facebook activities during the revolution were to organise gatherings and calls for action, to spread information to the world about the movement and related events and to raise awareness among the Tunisian population to the causes of the movement.
To my surprise, Twitter, despite its growing popularity in the Arab world and the role it played in the Egyptian revolution, had not captured Tunisians’ attention. Almost half of the workshop participants did not use Twitter. “What is the need?” was a question many asked, “we have Facebook”. Some of them had opened Twitter accounts, but deactivated them soon after as they did not feel it necessary to engage with colleagues and the public through this platform. This is reflected in the study conducted by the Dubai School for Government, which indicates that Twitter is used in Tunisia by less than 5% of the population.
The journalists on the course were aware of the pitfalls of using social networks as a source of news. Our discussions reinforced the fact that there is a need to apply professional fact checking with both sources and news posted on social networks before re-posting or re-publishing. A false news report about the owner of a Tunisian TV station being arrested for treason that went viral on Facebook and was then picked up by the State news agency, was a clear example of where relying on social media can be problematic.
The journalists who attended the course were also aware that they aren’t yet completely free of governmental control, prosecution and censorship. New decrees ratified after the revolution put new limits on what can and cannot be published, but in spite of this, the general consensus was that the situation is much better now than under the former regime. The fear that journalists used to operate under no longer exists. Most felt that unity is the best guarantee to their safety. One thing that everyone agreed was that social networks could be used as a tool to support one another and report any threats to journalists’ safety.
Independent journalists, like Slim Ayedi who attended the course, are involved in an initiative to engage young activists in professional journalism training, to have them become part of a network of ‘citizen journalists’ across Tunisia.
“Citizen Journalists and professional journalists should operate side by side, it is not a matter of choice it is a matter of collaboration” says Henda, a journalist and blogger. This is one of many lessons we can all learn from the recent experiences of journalists in Tunisia.
Dr Zahera Harb is a Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at City University