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Tunisia's press revels in new freedom

Journalists now can report freely about events in Tunisia.

Tunisia press 2011 3 5Enlarge
Tunisians read newspapers in the center of Tunis after the overthrow of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

TUNIS, Tunisia — Since the overthrow of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, Tunisians have been waking up everyday with a taste of freedom and that includes the country's newly free press.

Despite the new Tunisia's general atmosphere of slight anarchy and economic problems, people are joyful, proud and optimistic about the outcome of their revolution. After 23 years of dictatorship, they are discovering the stimulation of an independent press.

“Before, I didn't buy newspapers, now I do — it's enriching to get different points of view,” said Mohamed Taher Mrabet, a physician, referring to the time when the muzzled press only existed to propagate the government’s agenda.

No longer under the yoke of a tyrant and the threat of prison and police harassment, Tunisian reporters are relearning how to do their jobs.

Ben Ali was ranked as one of “10 worst enemies of the press” in the world according to the Committee to Protect Journalists because of his censorship of the domestic and foreign press and his harsh internet restrictions. Now the Tunisian press is changing at an extremely fast pace. The new government quickly shut down the Communications Ministry that regulated the press. In contrast, the new transitional government is allowing a free public discourse.

"The biggest challenge is for journalists to reinvent their right to expression because the craft was killed. The journalism field is on land that was burned by napalm," said journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, to AFP. Ben Brik, 50, was jailed for writing stories critical of Ben Ali.

Rim Saoudi, 30, a reporter for the daily paper Assabah, is passionate and idealistic about journalism. She supported the uprising and is now enjoying the opportunity to report honestly without fear. The paper, with a circulation of about 30,000 a day, is part of the media group Dar Assabah that before the revolution, was owned by the former president's son-in-law, Sakher El Materi, who is now in exile in Dubai. El Materi fled the country and now the 60-year-old paper is run by the government.

El Materi, a 31-year-old businessman, used Assabah for self-promotion and propaganda, said Saoudi. The reporters were given strict guidelines and followed a government-determined editorial line. The paper covered a slim range of topics: mainly culture and sports or anything praising the presidential family.

“Any topic that could hurt the image of Tunisia was not allowed. For example, we were not allowed to cover poverty because the idea was that ‘there are no poor people in Tunisia,’” the reporter explained.

Nothing much is left of the former owner, except the green grass field in front of the newsroom where El Materi used to play soccer with his friends.

The change at Assabah starts with its address. The paper used to be on the prominent Avenue of November 7 — named for the date when Ben Ali was elected president. But the street has now been renamed Mohammed Bouazizi Avenue, in honor of the street vendor who sparked off the revolt by setting himself alight to protest the corrupted Ben Ali regime.

Inside the Assabah newsroom the atmosphere is energetic and reporters happy to be at work. Saoudi, after covering a protest at the Casbah in Tunis, shares the experience with her coworkers.

“Rim, what is going on there,” many reporters ask her about the Casbah demonstration.

“They want the prime minister to leave,” she tells them.

This interchange would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago at Assabah.

Saoudi had tried in the past to push some topics she felt strongly about to appear in the paper and recalls succeeding only twice.