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.
“I love journalism, I want to work hard and improve my work,” Saoudi said. “I was so happy when I wrote, a few days after Ben Ali left, an opinion piece about the former interior minister titled ‘They are martyrs, Minister.'”
A major change at Assabah is the reinstatement of Noureddine Achour as editor. He had been editor of the paper for nine years but was ousted when El Materi took over more than two years ago. After the revolution, the paper's staff asked for Achour's return and he started running the paper again in February.
“We are the oldest paper and before being acquired by the son-in-law of Ben Ali, we were the most credible paper in Tunisia,” Achour said. “We need to adapt to a new political situation. We need to help politicians to have a sphere for debate.”
He warns that the task is important and the challenges great.
“Reporters need to adapt to this new liberty. A muzzled press that suddenly is free can be dangerous,” he said.
There are approximately 245 newspapers and magazines, and over 1,500 journalists in Tunisia. Most of the publications are private and others belong to political parties, like Al Mawkaf, the voice of the leftist party The Progressist Socialist Rally — the rest are state-owned. Major newspapers and radios were owned by members of the Ben Ali or Trabelsi clan.
“There has been a big change but there is a problem of training. We don’t have investigative journalism. Media were trained to write propaganda. They need to learn everything from scratch, especially the ethics, “ said union leader Naji Bgarni. “We are asking for a reform of the press code.”
The media groups still have to gain respect from their audience, and from the militant reporters who paid a high price for their courage during the Ben Ali years.
“I despise the journalists who were Ben Ali’s watchdogs and who now want to position themselves as the keepers of the revolution,” said Ben Brik, according to AFP. He is a prominent critic of Ben Ali who famously went on a hunger strike for 42 days to protest against the regime in 2000.
"Journalists are living a historical period where their freedom is for the first time respected. We must encourage and support their efforts,” said Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders. The organization expressed the urgency for preserving this newly acquired freedom.
“It is especially necessary to consolidate the achievements of this young revolution. Censorship has not disappeared and may return in force at any time,” Julliard said. “We must quickly protect it by establishing a legal and institutional framework to ensure in a sustainable manner the freedom of expression.”