New hope for press freedom in Tunisia?

The creation of a new journalists' union in Tunisia raises hopes about the press freedom situation in a country known for its systematic harassment of dissident voices. But is the birth of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists a sign of real change?
Tunisia, freedom. R.R.
'Freedom.' R.R.

PARIS, Jan. 21, 2008 (APN) – On January 13, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists was created, thus replacing the Association of Tunisian Journalists (ATJ), which during its forty-year existence became known mainly for its close links to the autocratic Tunisian regime.

So is there reason to be optimistic about the new journalists' union, and the change it could achieve in Tunisia?

"Five of the nine members of the executive committee, which was elected by the 400 founding members, are well known for their independence and courage. Neji Bghouri topped the poll with 215 votes," Rachid Khechana, editor-in-chief of the daily Al Mawkef, told APN. "He is a journalist with the government Assahafa daily and a former member of the now defunct ATJ, from where he was ousted after having boycotted their official report on the state of the press in Tunisia, and proposed a different version closer to reality."

According to Khechana, "It is clear that young Tunisian journalists felt the need for some new faces. The election was in fact a protest vote since the candidates most closely associated with the regime were eliminated."

That may well be the most surprising aspect of the new union, and gives hope of a new media scene in Tunisia.

"The younger generation of journalists have not fallen for the empty promises of improved employment conditions which they have been strung along with for a long time," said Khechana.

His views were supported by Kamel Labidi, a Tunisian media specialist who told APN, "Resistance to a regime hostile to press freedom is gaining support."

Had the authorities foreseen this protest vote? Or were they simply trying to buy back some credibility for the ATJ at the price of a new name? And perhaps lost control of the process?

For Kamel Labidi, this is not the first time that young, independently-minded Tunisian journalists have caused a surprise by taking control of a union or professional association which the authorities believed they could keep on a leash forever.

"We are witnessing the humiliating defeat of the government puppets who were charged with the task of creating a new journalists' union in order to block another union, le Syndicat Autonome, whose appearance in 2004 had given the profession a rising tide of hope, albeit a fleeting one. This reminds people that there is an increased support for resistance to a government that is more hostile to press freedom than the French colonial regime was."

But if those in power wanted to establish a truly representative union, why did they not just legalize the independent union founded in 2004, which remains banned to this day? Unanswered questions such as these, call for a high level of vigilance.

"I have heard that pressure is being exerted on executive committee members to prevent the most independent characters gaining access to key posts," Khechana said.

Kamel Labidi warns that "the task awaiting the new union's leadership is not an easy one. The regime succeeded in transforming the now defunct Association of Tunisian Journalists (ATJ), which was once one of the most independent professional organizations in the Arab world, into a home for informers and a support apparatus for President Ben Ali's political agenda. The authorities will do everything they can to transform this apparently promising union structure into an in-house 'stooge' union."

Furthermore, the legitimate material concerns of journalists in Tunisia – some of them earn less than 100 euro per month –, should not be allowed to hide other demands, in particular regarding the widening of the scope of freedom of expression.

"The autonomist wing of the new union will deserve the support of all journalists worthy of the name if it commits seriously to defending the victims of press freedom violations, including Slim Boukhdhir who at this moment is rotting in prison, and to working towards freeing the profession from the medieval yoke that is imposed by the regime," said Labidi.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), based in Brussels, welcomed the creation of this new journalists union, especially since it coincides with the lifting of a two-year ban on the IFJ website in Tunisia.

"This is a historic reform. Tunisian journalism has an opportunity for a fresh start in a country where journalists have suffered for too long," declared Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ.

This article is re-published with permission from The Arab Press Network, a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).