Mourad Teyeb is a Tunisian journalist who lives and works in Tunis. He has collaborated with international news outlets including the BBC World Service and is an outspoken commentator on media reform within the country. Here, Teyeb gives his personal opinion on what was behind the recent resignation of the Tunisian reform commission.
The Tunisian media reform commission (INRIC) resigned last week, citing government censorship and an unwillingness to reform the sector.
The decision has generated fierce debate over the legacy of INRIC and the government’s plans for media reform.
Much of the Tunisian media defended INRIC and shared its criticism of the government. Those criticisms were picked up and copied by the Western media, which failed to recognise the other facets of INRIC and the full significance of the resignation.
It is therefore good to notice that the INRIC was created under very special circumstances. Its chairman and board were appointed by Mohamed Ghannouchi, the interim Tunisian leader and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s last Prime Minister.
INRIC, whose role was meant to be very limited, had neither a legitimate status, as it was not elected, nor a popular one. Rather the organisation was comprised of people who had either lived away from Tunisia for a long time or had worked for the ousted regime.
In spite of this, INRIC nevertheless was regarded to have done quite a good job, specifically in the composition of the famous 115 and 116 decrees, which were aimed to protect journalists from harassment and lay the foundations for a newly independent media.
These decrees, as well as INRIC’s work as a whole, were not unanimously welcomed. They were considered to be good but far from perfect. Many experts asked that the legislation proposed by INRIC (including the decrees 115 and 116) be reviewed, enriched and corrected, but INRIC – and more specifically its Chairman Kamel Labidi – always refused.
One of the drawbacks of the work done by INRIC was that their proposals drew heavily from French legislation. Very little other international law was given consideration. The other main criticism was that INRIC refused to deal with other national entities, including the Constituent Assembly (Tunisia’s parliament) and the government itself.
The media sector in Tunisia continues to experience huge problems. The efforts of all parties, including INRIC, are needed to reform it. Yet, INRIC and the Tunisian Journalists Union (SNJT) have thus far failed to properly defend journalists or help media companies develop and improve.
For many Tunisians, including in senior figures in the media sector, Labidi’s main concern seemed to be to remain Head of INRIC.
In my view INRIC has been relatively unsuccessful in its bid to defend the rights of journalists.
A large number of Tunisian media companies – including TV networks and daily newspapers – are infringing the law every day, but INRIC, as well as the SNJT have failed to act.
Labidi announced his departure from INRIC the same day parliament voted on the creation of a new media regulation structure. For the Tunisian media, this legislative step was historic. But INRIC, and their allies, totally ignored it.
Some commentators have said that Labidi resigned only when he became sure he would not remain in charge of INRIC – a job that is highly paid by the Tunisian tax-payers.
The RCD issue
A few days before Labidi’s resignation prominent members of the old regime were invited to a TV debate. This was nothing short of a scandal. So contentious was the debate that it nearly triggered a new uprising in Tunisia, from north to south.
I remain convinced that if it were not the revolution, we would have never been here. The Journalism Foundation, the BBC, Reprieve and Chatham House would simply never have been allowed into Tunisia.
The Tunisian revolution was waged against the old regime and its ruling party (RCD) not against Ben Ali as a person. Consequently, giving legitimacy to members of Ben Ali’s inner coterie could have been very dangerous indeed.
What the Tunisian media needs today is people and bodies who go far beyond personal, political and ideological interests. It needs solidarity, frankness and courage from all parties involved: journalists, media companies, activists and the government.
Struggle for freedom of expression and media progress is not the job of the government alone, or any one individual institution. It is one of the very foundations of the Tunisian revolution and it must not stop under any circumstances.
This piece comes as a response to the resignation of the Tunisian commission charged with drafting Tunisia’s new media laws earlier this month