Tunisian media: Between a rock and a hard place

In the aftermath of Tunisia’s terrorist attacks, the government and the media are struggling to balance democratic values and the need to address security threats

Tunisia has entered a new phase of transition with independent elections that brought a new government earlier this year. In 2014, the country adopted a progressive constitution that guarantees fundamental human rights and civil liberties including basic freedoms.

As Tunisians started a new chapter in their history, anticipation grew on the new government’s ability to address pressing social demands, a major economic crisis and a growing security threat.

Through its first six months in office, the government has led a crackdown on armed groups and cells who have gained a foothold in Tunisia. While Tunisians were still coming to terms with terrorism, the country was battered by two major terrorist attacks targeting civilians. The attacks marked a clear shift in Islamist groups’ tactics and threatened to overshadow Tunisia’s transition towards democracy.

On 26 June 2015, one gunman killed 38 tourists and wounded 40 others at a beach resort in Sousse, before he was shot dead by security forces. The attack which was the worst in Tunisia’s history, came three months after the 18 March attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis where 22 people – mainly tourists – were killed. The two attacks that were claimed by ISIS, herald a new chapter in Tunisia’s battle with terrorism and show the level of threat that the Tunisian authorities will be confronted to for the next few years.

Media and terrorism
The recent attacks have constituted a real challenge for the government to develop adequate policies and introduce measures that best respond to the security threat while respecting freedoms that many people see as a luxury in the current context.

If such a task has proved daunting for the authorities, it has also stretched the ability of journalists to cover – for the first time – events of such scale with objectivity without “whitewashing” terrorism or falling into subjectivity.

To overcome such a challenge, journalists should develop a sense of “national” responsibility, which can only be done within newsrooms, said Larbi Chouikha, a professor at IPSI (Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information), the main media university in Tunisia.

Every newsroom should develop its own charter on how to cover similar events. A reflection is needed on that level to seek answers, including on the journalists’ responsibility to create the current climate, he said.

“Journalists should become conscious and take responsibility of their acts. They should recognise the need for some regulatory text such as a code of conduct.”

New measures and legislation
The fine balance between democratic values and security requirements is proving difficult to strike. Worrying signs show that media could become the first casualty in the new rules of engagement, reflected in new measures and laws.

President Beji Caid Essebsi imposed the state of emergency on 4 July, one week after the Sousse attack, which grants extraordinary powers to the police and army allowing them to ban protests, association and media freedoms.

“We are not willing to trade freedoms for security, even if we appreciate the level of the existing threat,” said Neji Bghouri, President of the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT).

“The same way we are worried about losing security and reaching a point of no return, we are worried about losing our freedoms without ever being able to regain them,” he said.

The solution was in creating the fine balance between freedom of the media and security. A pedagogical approach was needed with journalists so that they won’t have to choose between one thing or the other. “We neither want to ignore security concerns nor fall into the trap of whitewashing terrorism under the pretext of freedom of expression,” Bghouri said.

Two draft laws in particular have drawn wide criticism from civil society activists.

On 25 July, Parliament endorsed the new “law against terrorism and money laundering” which introduced the death penalty for terror offenses. Thanks to intensive lobbying by media activists, a last-minute amendment excluded journalists from the list of parties required to unveil their sources as suggested in the initial draft. The adopted law contains a broad definition of terrorism, and includes provisions that could facilitate abuse.

Mahmoud Dhawadi, President of the Tunis Center for Freedom of the Press, said that although no one could support terrorism, the problem was in the fact that journalists did not have clear lines to respect across the multitude of laws that existed.

“The other problem is that security has become a popular demand while advocacy for freedom of expression has weakened. If a journalist gets arrested now it is a different story,” he said. “It is no longer a problem between the government and the journalists, but between the journalists and the public opinion.”

A controversial draft law that penalises attacks against security forces was shelved after being condemned by civil society. The draft law on the Repression of Offences against Armed Forces included extremely heavy penalties that would have been handed down on journalists found responsible of such offenses.

The draft law that the government submitted to Parliament in April was shelved but risks being reintroduced for approval.

On 2 July, the Parliament withdrew Draft law 55 on access to information and postponed its examination which was due five days later, without giving an explanation on its action. The draft was a revision of the 2011 Decree 41, and consisted of a far more progressive version brought by the efforts of the Tunisian and international civil society.

“Civil society needs to engage in large-scale lobbying efforts in order to safeguard the gains achieved so far,” said Bechir Ouarda from Vigilance for Democracy and Civic State. The key challenge was that civil society had to face up two conservative parties in Parliament who are not known for defending freedom of expression, he said.

The failure to adhere to professional standards by some journalists who do not apply the basic rules of journalism and who often publish information without checking their veracity was also an issue.

“The only solution is through professionalisation,” he said.