Tunisian media workers demand basic rights

More than 150 technicians and journalists have been on strike for over a week against what they call "degrading" work conditions at Tunisian state radio and TV.
tunis strike
Media workers from Tunisian state radio and TV present their case at Journalists' Syndicate's general assembly. © Soufian al-Shourabi

TUNISIA, January 28, 2009 (MENASSAT) — A one-week sit-in by Tunisian state radio and TV employees has exposed the struggle of media workers for basic working rights in Tunisia. 
The state employees involved in the protest say that the government is deliberately marginalizing media workers in order to manipulate their content more easily.

'A battle for human dignity'

Legal analysts in Tunis say the sit-in will likely redefine labor relations between employers and employees in the media field, precisely because the striking media workers are employees of the state.

A journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told MENASSAT that dozens of reporters, technicians and photojournalists throughout Tunisia have joined the state radio and TV workers in what he calls a "battle for human dignity." Strikers have set up mattresses and have been sleeping on the floor of a state radio and TV warehouse, the reporter said.

The journalist also said that all of the demonstrators were veterans at Tunisian state radio and TV. "Some have been there for more than 15 years, without ever signing a legal contract or having any kind of social protection."

According to Tunisian labor legislation, an employer is required to provide all staff with proper contracts if employed for four years or more.

The journalist said that the management of Tunisian state radio and TV had been delaying paying the strikers' salaries for months, salaries that were already very low at around $200.

One striker told MENASSAT, "I sold some of my jewelry and my cell phone to eat and get around. How can we work while our dignity is being trampled?"

Struggle for basic rights

One pregnant media worker participating in the week-long sit-in told MENASSAT that it was shameful to see how state radio and TV management was treating demonstrators.

"If our employers had been willing to act, they could have saved what is becoming a disaster," she said.

Over the past few days, sources at the sit-in said the station's management was forced to call ambulances after two other pregnant media workers had passed out from fatigue. Following the incident, the husband of one of the ladies tried to throw himself off the roof of a building.

"We never imagined we would live to witness these events in a media institution that has such a history of glory,” one protester said.

A cameraman and his wife told MENASSAT that they have worked at state radio and TV for over eight years but they are still getting paid on a freelance basis.

The couple, who are still university students, have been on shaky financial ground the entire time they have worked for state radio and TV, and have to rely on their parents for support.

All of the demonstrators expressed dismay at the tactics of the management.

A female reporter at the sit-in said, "Do you know what the administration did to us when we began demonstrating? Instead of listening to our demands, they closed the door of the warehouse to prevent our colleagues from joining the sit-in. They even shut off the water taps in the toilets to pressure us into ending the sit-in."

Journalists' Syndicate joins campaign

Journalist Toufic al-Abbashi told MENASSAT that he is working on establishing a national committee to support the demonstrators. 

"Despite the intimidation from administrative and partisan departments in the station for the employees to end their sit-in, they have carried on with their campaign, asking for their rights and for their salaries."

Tunisia's state radio and TV employs some 1,000 workers.

In May 2008, the Syndicat National des Journalistes Tunisiens (SNJT) met with the Information Minister, and it was agreed that all irregular staff contracts would revert to official contracts with a salary of $325 per month. The agreement also guaranteed an improvement in working conditions for state media employees.

But shortly after the agreement, state TV management withdrew from the agreement, saying they were not committed to what was decided at the meeting.

A group of journalists took advantage of the SNJT's second Annual General Assembly on January 23 and presented their social problems to the syndicate, urging them to denounce their treatment by state radio and TV.

Undermining the union

The SNJT was created only last year following the dissolution of the Association des Journalistes Tunisiens (AJT), specifically so it could also campaign on behalf of the labor rights of journalists as well as other professional issues.

Since then, the SNJT has been subjected to a campaign to undermine the syndicate's independence, including the withdrawal of the annual state grant that is provided to all trade unions and professional organizations.
Those who attended the General Assembly decided to form a delegation headed by the President of the Syndicate, journalist Naji al-Baghouri, who visited the demonstrators to show the support of the Syndicate.

''Journalists have suffered for too long when all they want is respect for their basic rights. This week they ran out of patience and we will do what we can to support their cause," Bghouri told the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

"Following an intense debate, the SNJT created a strike support committee and launched a solidarity fund to provide support for its striking members," he added.

The angry journalists said that they would start a hunger strike in the next few days if these issues were not solved.

The employees also decided to send an open letter to Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin bin Ali asking for his personal intervention in finding an acceptable settlement of their demands.