When social networking becomes a news source

Tunisians facing continuing government restrictions on their access to domestic news are turning to social networking sites to balance the stunted news coverage of Tunisia’s official media. MENASSAT highlights one such incident during popular protests in the mining area of Gafsa.
tunis facebook
A snapshot of one of the many Tunisian Facebook groups challenging official media. R.R.

TUNIS, December 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Social networking sites like Facebook have increasingly become a balance to the stunted news coverage of Tunisia’s official media according to sources in Tunis.

Recently that has meant Tunisians have turned to alternative online media for coverage of events like this year’s protests in the Gafsa mining region 350 km south of Tunis.

Since January, laborers have taken to the streets to protest the lack of job opportunities and the lack of government assistance with social and economic development policies in the region, this despite the fact that Gafsa supplies the country with most of its phosphate exports.

But there has been limited coverage of events there, leaving a vacuum for citizen reporting.

Supplying the media with content

Since January, Tunisians in Gafsa have been active in posting reports on sites like Facebook and blogs like “A Blog for Gafsa.” Videos, pictures, and eyewitness accounts of the demonstrations made there way to the media through these sites.

Additionally, the Tunisian government imposed strict security measures banning journalists from reporting in Gafsa.

In November, the Tunisian courts indicted TV reporter Fahem Boukadous because of his coverage of the protests for independent Tunisian TV station Al-Hiwar Attounsi

In hiding since July, Boukadous was charged with “belonging to a criminal association” and “spreading reports liable to disrupt public order” after having put foreign news media in contact with labor leaders in Gafsa.

Reporters Without Borders said, "Boukadous was in the right place at the right time to cover this unrest. As a result of being hounded by the authorities, he had to abandon his work in order to avoid certain arrest. We call for the charges to be dropped so that he can be reunited with his family and go back to work as a reporter."

The lack of official reporting makes the info coming out from online sources like Facebook vital to foreign news sources, particularly French-language press outlets.

On Facebook alone several “Gafsa networks” posted video of France 3 TV’s reportage about the trial of some of the Oafsa demonstrators arrested by Tunisian security forces in January.

Media blowback

Tunisia has long been a place with limited press freedoms, and according to Dr. al-Monsif al-Marzouki, former president of the National Tunisian Council for Freedoms, Tunisian online users see Facebook and other online sources to be more relevant to their lives.

“The role of Facebook with Tunisians can’t be deeply understood without looking at the whole political scene. In Tunisia, there are the extreme crimes from bribe, torture, falsification of elections, threatening the population, and even more dangerously, the corruption of the administrative, education, health departments, not to mention unemployment, lack of morals and depression…”

“The citizens are proactive and want to fix the virus of the Tunisian regimes' actions before it spreads like a disease,” Al-Marzouki said.

Academic Samir Sassi, deputy editor of al-Mawqaf (the stand) newspaper, said “There is no doubt the official media went too far in distorting events like Gafsa,” in large part by not reporting on it, and he said, “to an extent the people have rejected it by turning to Facebook.”

Government wising up?

No doubt, Tunisia will end up clamping down on Facebook groups as it did with Dr. Al-Marzouki's group, “Friends of the National Tunisian Council for Freedoms."

The group recently reported that the government banned it from openly celebrating international human rights day on December 10th.

Al-Marzouki is not surprised by the move, and says that Facebook and other similar  social networking sites are feared by despotic regimes the world over “because media suppression, any suppression needs individuals to have no connections with one another.”

Statistics show there are some 130,000 active Tunisian Facebook members, the majority of them young people.