Tunisia’s Arab Spring turns to anxious summer
We visited Tunisia last week, during a scorching heat wave. The women we met were wearing sleeveless summer dresses, but a couple of them said that when they go out, their neighbors now tell them off for wearing revealing clothes. With the religious Nahda party now in power, uncovered women worry that their daughters won’t be able to wear bikinis and wonder which countries their daughters can move to if things get worse.
Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began, but the stories we heard reflect the larger sense of uncertainty and debate about how to have a democracy in a place where the word means something different for everyone. Another sign of tension was the Tunisian court decision last week to uphold the seven-year sentence given to a Tunisian who posted a cartoon on Facebook depicting the Prophet Mohammad in the nude. This small country faces stresses and strains as it continues on its path away from the dictatorship of Ben Ali.
The uncertainty means that progress sometimes feels slow. Many of the country’s institutions – the Central Bank, the state-run TV station and the Ministry of Interior – are staffed with the same civil servants as before the revolution, and many of the judges remain from the old days, so not many people trust them. What do you do when people need jobs – and there is massive unemployment – but many of the major businessmen in the country were linked to the dictatorship? How do you reform the media, which acted as a mouthpiece for the government? How do you transform the state-run television station into a public service broadcaster? And what steps can everyone agree on?
In the years before the Revolution, the media were highly controlled, and Tunisia consistently scored at the bottom of press freedom rankings. Now, there is a lively and raucous press with new publications, websites and TV stations. But journalists don’t know where the boundaries are. “We feel like we are walking on a cloud, and we don’t know what are the limits,” one journalist said to me. The National Authority for the Reform of Information and Communication (INRIC) met over the last year and in April released a lengthy report filled with recommendations. It was chaired by human rights activist Kamel Labidi, who has studied cases of media transition in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Spain, South Africa and Poland. INRIC wants to see the new proposed media implemented and is planning to lobby the government and the Constituent National Assembly. “INRIC will publicly make it clear that it has no intention to remain ‘in business’ in the absence of a genuine will on the part of the government to help bring the country’s media into conformity with international standards for Freedom of Expression,” Labidi says.
Transforming the media after years of authoritarian control involves many different elements. New media laws should protect freedom of expression and allow journalists to report without the threat of jail. The defamation and libel laws need to be repealed or changed so that journalists aren’t imprisoned for reporting on public figures. The old rules requiring licensing of media outlets and government permission for the import of newsprint need to go. Journalism programs at universities are often out of date, highly theoretical and ideologically charged, so the curriculum has to be transformed. Typically in moments of democratic transition there is tremendous interest in news, and new media outlets arise (for example, France after World War Two, Ghana after Jerry Rawlings, Spain after Franco, Burma today) – but then can’t get enough revenue and eventually close down. Exiled journalists may want to come back, but the people who stayed sometimes resent them because the exiles missed out on the hard years at home. The new journalism is lively and passionate but often gossipy and short on facts, as there are not enough experienced professionals to staff the new outlets that have opened. The new chaos sounds normal enough to people accustomed to democracy, but it can feel excruciating for those accustomed to the order of the old ways.
Of course, the media are a microcosm of society. The reforms needed in the media sector resemble those necessary in other parts of the government. But during transition, media issues don’t always seem to be the most pressing: When unemployment is high and the economy is weak, media reform is not viewed as urgent. And as always, questions of gender are on the front lines in the larger debates. Banning pornography can be a backdoor way of controlling freedom of the press.
As the women we met kept telling us, sometimes the problems of women in a Muslim society and the problems of media freedom are combined. A communications professor who lectures on Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida described to me his experiences at Manouba University, where Salafists spent the last year disrupting the campus as they called for the female students to have the right to wear the niqab. A woman came into his class fully covered, and he told her that in his class he has to see his students, that people who can’t be seen don’t exist. She lifted her veil to reveal her eyes, but he told her it was not enough – that she needed to be uncovered. “We faculty met every day” throughout those difficult four months, he said. “We took minutes, and we called lawyers.”
Dean Habib Kazdaghli of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities tried his best to resolve the ugly situation at Manouba, but the underlying tensions are much larger than the turmoil on one campus. There is anxiety on all sides, but Tunisians’ willingness to debate and discuss is encouraging. Let’s hope that the new Tunisia – the place where the Arab Spring began – can remain an example of a relatively harmonious and peaceful transition, and a model for the rest of the world.
PHOTO: Hundreds of jobless graduates protest against unemployment outside the Parliament building in Tunis, July 2, 2012. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi