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Media freedom in question after first post-revolution elections

Manoubia Bouazizi, mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who set himself on fire in an act of protest which inspired the Arab Spring, gestures after casting her ballot at a polling station in Marsa district
Manoubia Bouazizi, mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who set himself on fire in an act of protest which inspired the Arab Spring, gestures after casting her ballot at a polling station in Marsa district

REUTERS / Jamal Saidi

With 90 per cent of eligible voters in Tunisia participating in a free election for the first time in 55 years on 23 October, IFEX members are calling for numerous reforms and political commitments to nurture this great yearning for democracy. Violent attacks on a Tunis TV station earlier this month have hit home the need for security, legal reform and educational campaigns.

With more than half the votes counted, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has won approximately 40 per cent of the seats, with around 100 political parties running. The first in the region since the start of the Arab Spring, the elections have been widely reported as free and fair. The 217-member constituent assembly is tasked with drafting a new constitution, acting as an interim government and setting a date for full parliamentary elections.

"The stage is set for a complex debate that will test the Tunisian media and its capacity to communicate the works of the new assembly," says Index on Censorship's Rohan Jayasekera, who chairs the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG). "Despite solid efforts by the country's post-revolution National Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC) – the media landscape evolution has been slow."

At this crucial political juncture, measures to support a pluralistic and free media landscape and online information sharing were recommended by civil society organisations attending an IFEX-TMG workshop in Tunisia in September.They included the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Tunis Centre for Freedom of the Press, Observatory for Press Freedom, Publishing and the Creative Arts (OLPEC), the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) and Tunisian Union of Free Radios (STRL). The workshop was led by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

IFEX-TMG acknowledged "the outstanding dedication of media professionals, civil society groups and consultative bodies in reforming the media sector… after decades of repression and hardship. Their ambition and vision for their profession and society can no longer be held hostage by those whose only desire is to stall the reform process to protect their own interest."

In a joint statement, IFEX-TMG called for the 12 radio and five TV stations recommended by INRIC to be authorised to broadcast; that the new constitution enshrine freedom of expression, information and the press; that the government support the viability of new, independent media through fiscal and other policies and that repressive Internet censorship laws be repealed.

The importance of media protection measures became even clearer after a violent attack on Nessma TV, report IFEX members. On 9 October, more than 300 angry demonstrators attempted to storm the TV station's headquarters after it aired the film "Persepolis," which the protesters deemed anti-Islamic for the character's imaginary depiction of God, according to IFEX members. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) adds that the mob wanted to set the station on fire.

Several demonstrators were arrested, however, the threats continued when two days later, two men entered the TV station's premises and threatened to kill employees, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Cars parked outside the home of Nabil Karoui, head of Nessma TV, were also torched that day.

Also worrying is that 144 lawyers kick-started the crackdown on Nessma TV by signing a letter claiming the film's airing breached the pre-revolution media law, which is still on the books, Index on Censorship reports. Karoui has been questioned and may face three years in jail, RSF says.
On 16 October, thousands of free expression advocates marched peacefully in the Tunisian capital decrying censorship attempts from pro-Islamic groups. "We do not want to go from a police dictatorship to an Islamic dictatorship," one demonstrator blogged, according to Index on Censorship.
Adding to the unease about Tunisia's future, Human Rights Watch reports that prominent Ennahda member Sadok Chourou said earlier this month that his party will criminalise defamation or insult against Islam.

To help voters inform themselves ahead of the election, Human Rights Watch surveyed a wide range of political parties on their position on various human rights issues using a questionnaire and independent research. While Ennadha refused interview requests, the 13 parties that did respond all agreed that defamation, currently subject to criminal law, should be subject to civil law.

"In order for the democratic transition to succeed… the media landscape must be transformed," states the ATFD, which monitored the media during the elections in coalition with other rights groups including SNJT and OLPEC. It is important, says the group, to "break the monopoly of public and private media" and encourage the "development of a space for different opinions, where the independence of editorial choices is provided in respect of the public interest."

Thanks to the prospects for independent media, RSF opened a bureau on 13 October in Tunisia and has launched a public campaign to raise awareness about the importance of free media through newspaper ads and posters. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have also opened local and regional offices in the country since the revolution led the President to flee in January after three decades of control.

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