In light of recent changes in the media sector in Tunisia, Jasmine Foundation spoke to Mourad Teyeb, veteran journalist, producer and rights activist, about what has changed in the media sector since 14 January 2011.
What, in your view, has changed in Tunisia since 14 January 2011?
A lot has changed. One cannot but recognise the huge freedom Tunisians enjoy since 2011: freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of belief, etc.
In many cases, freedom has exceeded its limits and there is a lack of responsibility and consciousness, but this is not at all problematic. In my view, it is due to the frustration and the consequences of many decades of despotism. The more the general situation in the country stabilises and state institutions based on the rule of law are established, the more excesses in discourse and actions will decrease.
What does 14 January mean to you?
14 January is an extraordinary change that left a mark not only on the modern history of Tunisia, but the history of the whole of humanity. It is perhaps too early to judge the importance of this event, but for me, it marked a radical change on many levels.
Personally, it was a great relief to be done with an era without precedence in its obscurantism, corruption, clientelism, systematic pillaging of the human, natural and cultural resources of Tunisia.
Professionally, 14 January marked the beginning of a phase of building where the media is supposed to play a fundamental role in society, far from the interference of public authorities and political and financial lobbies.
What was it like being a journalist in Ben Ali’s time?
Journalism was a vulnerable, even extremely dangerous job before 2011 in Tunisia. I mean real journalism!
Those who worked in the field (I’m not sure whether we can call them journalists) can generally be split into three categories: 1. a minority (10% or less of the sector) who rejected the system altogether. They either ended up leaving the industry or being fired (if not jailed) or were lucky enough to find their way out in a very corrupt, very complicated environment. They tried to “skirt” the red lines and work as freely and as securely as possible, 2. a good number (nearly 1/3) who had neither the qualifications nor the opportunity to work elsewhere than in a media company. In order to secure their status, they had only to obey orders and play the game as it should be played. At best, they tried not to be involved in the widespread corruption that marked the sector. And in all cases, they ended up by being more ‘employees’ than journalists, waiting for their salaries and promotions, nothing more, 3. a majority, mostly graduated from the Press Institute, who were willing and predisposed to serve the system and the regime.
How do you think the media have changed since the revolution? How do you think public perceptions of the media have changed since the revolution?
For me, one of the biggest disappointments of the Revolution so far is the state of the media. Those who have always controlled the biggest media companies are still powerful and have succeeded in defending themselves and maintaining their interests. The same lobbies and parties continue today to control the biggest part of the media spectrum.
I never expected this to rapidly change. But I’m sad that journalists, mainly the youngest among them (the under-40s constitute a majority in the field) have shown no sign of being aware of the importance of being independent, well-trained and free. Out of fear of being fired and ignorance about their rights and their potential in a democracy, or by simply not having the courage to take any risks that might threaten their career, they accept the status quo, even defend it and end up becoming puppets of the political, ideological and business lobbies they work for.
Despite the serious attempts by many journalists and new media companies (mainly broadcast and online), Tunisians still have a bad perception of the media. Public and private mainstream media receive just as much criticism as before the Revolution, or even more, for their impartiality and lack of professionalism.
That explains why many Tunisians, including the educated and well-off classes, still find alternatives in social media and the un-structured online news outlets (mainly amateur sites) that they feel they can trust more than mainstream media.
This is sad but should not be discouraging. It should encourage us all to continue the struggle towards a free, independent and sustainable media.
How successful do you think media reform has been since the revolution?
Legislation and regulatory institutions are vital for the media. But reality all over the world has shown that these are not enough to produce good-quality media.
In a Tunisian media environment marked by corrupt owners and managers, biased journalists and a lack of awareness and professionalism among most journalists, reform has so far failed. Journalists are still accustomed, willingly or unwillingly, to serving the interests of their employers and their employers’ sponsors.
Most associations that are supposed to defend journalists’ moral, professional and financial rights (SNJT, UGTT, HRW, RSF, etc.) have shown that they are more interested in select political battles and issues than by anything else related to the sector’s development. They have often served certain political or ideological agendas at the expense of journalists’ needs and problems.
Underpaid, insecure and unprofessional journalists serve best these associations’ goals. Hence, why change them!
Many journalists agree to play the game and do not even question the status quo. Consequently, they are made easy to control by political parties and by powerful businesses. It will take much more time to raise awareness of this reality, offer concrete alternatives and start a true reform process in the Tunisia media.
There is a new body to regulate the broadcast media – how do you think their performance has been so far?
HAICA, the audio-visual media regulating body, has been established fairly recently. Although it has not achieved much so far, it is unfair to criticise it, in my view.
Its short period of existence, its internal composition and the political situation in the country have been serious obstacles for its work.
I think the first test for HAICA’s credibility and potential will be the long-awaited publication of legal requirements to start a broadcast company. This legal framework (‘cahier des charges’) will be announced by HAICA in the coming weeks and will show us the effort, quality and willingness of this independent institution to offer the Tunisian broadcast sector modern and fair regulation.
How do you think the abolition of the ministry of communication has affected the sector? Do you think a ministry for media is needed?
As I said, Tunisian media needs more ethics and respect for the rule of law rather than a stock of institutions.
Media regulation can be assigned to HAICA, to a future Parliament or to a ministry. But no reform and no improvements will be achieved without the ability (legal and political) to hold everybody accountable and to reach a minimum of transparency as to the funding of media companies, their management and their respect for journalistic ethics and the law.
What did you think of the black book? Do you think there has been an open conversation in Tunisian media about the role of journalists under the former regime?
I was among those who called, very early after the fall of the old regime, for the publication of all information about corrupt journalists, managers and media companies in particular, and all those who were part of Ben Ali’s propaganda machine, in general. I think it is important to expose and decry those who brought serious harm to the country, whether in the media or any other sector. That is what the ‘Black Book’ achieved.
It is noticeable how many corrupt journalists, who became “holier-than-thou“ after the fall of the dictatorship they had always served and benefited from, have almost disappeared since the publication of the Black Book in late November 2013.
I think that while the exposure of the corrupt media machinery is indispensable, how to deal with it is a totally different issue. Tunisians are free to forgive them or to sue them… But any decision should be taken on a transparent, formal and ethical basis, far away from revenge or “score-settling”.
Can you recall for us a particularly happy moment since the revolution?
Professionally: the new freedoms we acquired in all areas of life and the opening of new horizons for Tunisian journalists.
Personally: the first democratic elections in 2011 and the passing of the new Constitution.
A moment you will never forget?
The widespread jubilation in Habib Bourguiva Avenue on 14 January 2011.