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Tunisia's Press Adapts To New Freedoms

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While the protests were happening, there wasn't so much as a glimmer of it on Tunisian television.

"The whole country was burning, people were revolting, and you know what they were showing on TV? A program on obesity, for God’s sake!" says Noura Houisi, a 20-year-old student in Tunis.

She said like many there, she had little use for the old Tunisian media.

Hmidah Ben Romdhane, the new director of La Presse, one of Tunisia's major newspapers, said before Tunisia's longterm president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, media chiefs there owed their jobs to the dictator.

"When the boss who is faithful to the dictator, the journalist can't do anything because if you write a piece that seems unpleasant to the boss, you can't publish it," Ben Romdhane says. "This situation provoked a kind of self-censorship for the journalists."

It was this reality that led Ben Romdhane to write an editorial, with the title, "Mea Culpa," on the front page of La Presse, two weeks after Ben Ali departed. Ben Romdhane apologized to readers for providing "everything but the news," and promised a press that would be accurate, inclusive, and diverse.

Now, journalists at the paper are chomping at the bit to make that happen, he said.

"People find themselves free and they behave as if they were always free, so there is no any kind of self-censorship now," Ben Romdhane said.

Security is still present near government buildings in Tunisia.

Things are indeed radically different now. News reports actually describe what is going on. Satire targeting public officials -- absolutely unheard of under Ben Ali -- flourishes on a popular radio station, Mosaique FM.

Web pages are, ostensibly, no longer blocked -- apart from pornography and terrorism-related sites. But there are still traces of the old ways. Some have complained about deleted Facebook pages and blocked videos of police brutality against protestors.

Beyond the lingering censorship, self-censorship is a hard habit to break. On a national TV talk show a few weeks after the regime fell, one guest challenged the hosts after, he says, someone back stage told him not to talk about politics.

"This is happening on national TV," the talk show guest says. "You are scared about your jobs. We have to get used to saying no. You should expose yourselves to losing your jobs like some of us who exposed our chests to bullets."

Ten years ago, Riadh Ben Fadhel was shot twice in the chest by unidentified gunmen after he wrote a commentary in the newspaper, "Le Monde," calling for Ben Ali to step down.

Accounts differ on whether Facebook pages were actually shut down, but control over the internet under Ben Ali was severe.

Now Ben Fadhel runs a communications firm in Tunis. He said that he agrees that some outlets are having difficulty making the transition to a free press, but others are going too far in another direction.

"Unfortunately, it has led to some excesses. Some journalists have a tendency to say everything. There was such a thirst for liberty, but this thirst has resulted in some unprofessional behavior," Ben Fadhel says. He pointed to some journalists who repeated and ran stories from Facebook that turned out not to be true.

Ben Fadhel said that Tunisia needs to get back to the basics of professional journalism, and he added that he thought that Tunisia's journalists are trying to do that. A national council on communication is being set up to give guidance and training, though most are learning by trial and error.

"These excesses will be quickly corrected. It's better to have excesses with freedom of the press than to have responsibility with no freedom," Ben Fadhel says. "The ideal is to have freedom and respect for the fundamental principles of the profession."

As one young man at a Tunis café put it, Tunisia is in the middle of tracing its own destiny. Like a prisoner freed abruptly after years of captivity, it will take a little bit of time to learn to be free.


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