Tunisia, Egypt and Libya: the challenge posed by freedom of the press
Ilaria Romano 11 May 2011

The demand for justice, freedom and democracy that has filled the streets of the Arab world has led to a transition phase the boundaries of which are still unclear. One of the unknowns is the future of news reporting and the media.

In a country where a regime has just been deposed, at least during the uprising, it is paradoxically easy to develop a plural and independent media system, also because, as Faouzi Ezzedine (editor-in-chief of the Tunisian Hannibal TV) reminds, “it is natural to side with the opposition to the regime one is leaving behind.” When the various elements of these revolutions decide on the new power structure, the issue could become complex again.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, television and national newspapers have acted as the loudspeakers for those in power. At the end of the nineties, the media operated within an extremely rigid framework for media operators, who suffered pressure, threats or even arrest when they did not “vanish” into thin air; in this context, satellite channels arrived. Then came the Internet too, with its blogs and social networks.

Networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabya came from Qatar and the Emirates to conquer young viewers, who were becoming increasingly attentive to international issues and those concerning their own countries. These media outlets covered the same issues their governments had systematically censored.

Al Jazeera, in particular, always had a conflicting relationship with the Mubarak government because of its specific choice to provide the opposition with airtime and visibility. In reporting protests well before January 25th 2011, Al Jazeera chose a multi-platform strategy. It linked its network with the Internet, allowing the integration of its reports with postings on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Regimes’ control over the “traditional” media in the meantime continued to increase. It was no coincidence that after the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 10th, sparking the protests, state television channel TV7 broadcast cartoons or interviews with citizens stating they were against the protests.

In the ranking for freedom of the press last year published by Reporters without Borders, Tunisia lost ten points, falling to the 164th position. According to New York’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists, of the “ten instruments for on-line oppression”, two in particular characterised Tunisia and Egypt as far as an independent use of the Internet was concerned. One was the creation by the state of fake Google, Yahoo and Facebook pages so as to ‘sniff users’ access data, and the other was arbitrarily disconnecting access to the Internet.

Ben Ali’s government, which in recent years has had a monopoly over two television stations (TV7 and Channel 21), seven radio stations and most Arabic and French language daily newspapers and magazines, such as Assabah and Al-Chourouk, never stopped exercising pressure on any media outlet attempting to remain independent. This also applied to Radio Kalima and its journalist Fatem Hamdi, who was attacked by two plainclothes policemen last year following a reportage on rising prices, as well as Nizar Ben Hassine, accused of disturbing public order and insulting the authorities after reporting on the illegal expropriation of land to the advantage of the president’s family. After the removal of Ben Ali, TV7 itself started to broadcast images of the protests, and, in the meantime, it also changed its name to National Television and its symbol’s colors from purple to white and red, like the flag.

But for Tunisians television also included the Italian networks broadcast on the other shore of the Mediterranean. ANSAmed’s consultant Nabila Zayati, says a number of young people who had just landed in Lampedusa, started shouting ‘Italia 1’ as soon as they caught sight of her camera, just like the young Italians in the ad for the Mediaset channel. “Their Italy was the one seen on television, including RAI’s channels, with its quiz shows, variety and reality shows”, Zayati writes.

In Egypt before February 11th, the day Mubarak left power, the state-owned Middle East News Agency had the absolute order not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood or Mohamed El Baradei as one of the regime’s political opponents.

Abdelhalim Kandil, a journalist critical of the Mubarak government and a coordinator of the movement for democracy in Egypt, Kefaya, founded in 2006, believes that one of the endemic problems for a free press in Egypt has always been the lack of private publishing houses, which means all periodicals had to be sent to state publishers. Egypt kept its opposition publications, but always with great censorship problems, imposed above all in cases involving criticism of the president and his relatives. Al-Masri Al-Youm and Al-Dustour, the two main Egyptian independent daily newspapers, reported on the April 6th 2008 workers’ movement, but did not report equally extensively on the initiative organized a year later, due to pressure from the state.

Until recently all the media in Libya has been controlled by the state. Between 2007 and 2008 Libya authorized privately owned media, and this provision allowed the addition of Al-Ghad, a company owned by one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif Al Islam, and nationalised last year.

Those who attempted to denounce the regime’s policies in some cases paid with their lives. For all those who died, let us remember one name, that of Mohamad Nabus, who founded the web TV channel Libya Al-Hurra, and was killed on March 19th by a sniper. In Libya, too, the Internet provided fundamental connections and then traditional forms of organisation used for spreading messages, including photocopying machines, did the rest.

The risk is that now the protests may mean a transition from total control over information to an indiscriminate and not always verifiable flow of news. Seeing what followed the street protests in the current international intervention in Libya, future leaders in Egypt and Tunisia may not allow the gates to freedom of the press to be opened completely. In Egypt the army has dismantled the Ministry of Information but has appointed a supervisor for radio and television. One emblematic case is the one involving Maikel Nabil, a blogger sentenced to three years in prison by a military court for having insulted the establishment and for having spread false information through his blog. The young man had written that the neutral position exhibited by the army is only a façade, because the Armed Forces allegedly supported the secret police and tortured a number of protesters arrested during protests, even after the fall of Mubarak.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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