Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

Tunisia’s Arab Spring turns to anxious summer

Anya Schiffrin
Jul 6, 2012 17:53 UTC

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.

Excitement and democracy come to Burma

Anya Schiffrin
Feb 23, 2012 20:33 UTC

After the heady days of the Arab Spring last year, it is now Burma’s excitement that’s in the news. Aung San Suu Kyi is hard at work on the campaign trail, political prisoners are being released, and there is talk of the European Union lifting sanctions and the World Bank returning to this Southeast Asian country, which has been isolated from the West for decades.

Visiting Burma for the first time in 1994, I found it the most frightened place I had ever been. I wandered alone for a week in this gorgeous country, the only tourist admiring the historic Buddhist paintings on the walls of the famous temples of Bagan. I visited the market in Rangoon, where women whose faces were decorated with white circles of crushed bark sat smoking fat cigars. In whispered conversations, people  told me how afraid they were of the military government and then moved away quickly because they did not want to be seen with a foreigner. Everyone who went to Burma in those days was haunted by it: the lush landscape with its thatched huts, the gentleness of the people, the loneliness of their existence and the quiet desperation. The problems seemed intractable: the poverty, the corruption and the total lack of freedom.

I returned in 2009 and sat in on a conference organized by United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific aimed at discussing development policy. Government officials showed up wearing their military uniforms, and the conference delegates were advised not to mention poverty lest they offend the regime. The delegates spoke in euphemisms but gently urged the government to spend more on health and education. There was a blackout of official media, but even so we were told the meeting was a breakthrough because it was one of the first times that development policies were discussed in a (somewhat) open forum.

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