Opening up free expression in Tunisia

Monday, March 21, 2011
Reuters: A woman walks near graffiti during a demonstration by protesters from Tunisia's marginalised rural heartlands outside the Prime Minister's office in Tunis January 24, 2011. The graffiti reads, "I love freedom".
The Tunisian Revolution Three months ago, little was known about the protests growing in the small North African nation of Tunisia. The events which would eventually lead to the end of President Ben Ali’s regime began on December 17 with produce vender Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in protest of the police having confiscated his produce cart. This act of self-immolation sparked protests in the town of Sidi Bouzid which quickly spread across the region and across the country. A population frustrated with living standards, police violence, unemployment and a lack of human rights was mobilized. Yet with a blackout imposed on all news of the protests in the country, local media was initially silent. It was social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that provided the initial internal reports on what was happening in Tunisia until the private news channel Nessma TV became the first major Tunisian media outlet to report on the protests. After almost a month of protests, violent crackdowns by government forces and over 100 deaths, Ben Ali fled the country on January 14. His departure clearly marked a victory for the Tunisian revolution. Since then the protesters have continued efforts to maintain the momentum in order to have their demands met. The fall of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia has brought a newfound freedom of press, with the release of jailed journalists and bloggers and the accessibility of websites previously blocked in the country. The interim government proclaimed complete freedom of information and expression as a fundamental principle and abolished the former Communication Ministry which regulated the press. For 23 years the regime had suppressed independent press by denying registration, seizing publications, physical assault and imprisonment. Many media outlets served to produce propaganda instead of reporting on social issues or conducting investigative journalism. The IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group In 2004, the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) was formed to raise awareness of free expression violations and support independent journalists, writers and civil society activists in their campaign to end censor ship in the country. Made up of 20 IFEX members, including CJFE, IFEX-TMG has undertaken a variety of advocacy initiatives including fact finding missions, extensive reports, letters to the UN and EU, joint actions and lobbying. In early February, a delegation of IFEX-TMG traveled to Tunisia to determine what would be needed in order to rebuild the independent press and ensure freedom of the press and freedom of expression are firmly established. Some of the most pressing challenges include the need for an independent institutional framework for the media, a thorough revision of the press laws, strengthening of professional standards and reforming of journalism education. Press Freedom: The Road Ahead Following the ousting of Ben Ali, IFEX-TMG began calling on Tunisian authorities to open up the media registration process to all, and investigate attacks on journalists, lawyers and civil rights activists. The ongoing campaign for free expression rights will become increasingly important in the run up to the National Assembly elections scheduled for July 24th. This election will end the current interim government, and will be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections, dates for which have not yet been set. Kamel Labidi, journalist and former advisor for IFEX-TMG, was appointed Head of the National Authority to Reform Information and Communication on February 27. Along with other members of the Authority, Labidi’s main objectives include improving media efficiency and the creation of regulatory authorities to resolve disputes between media and public opinion. The Authority will also be working with the Higher Commission of Political Reform and Democratic Transition to develop laws that would provide safeguards to journalists. CJFE urges the Tunisian interim government to continue to promote press freedom, and to thoroughly investigate all attacks against journalists. Take Action Write a letter to Ambassador Mouldi Sakri expressing your support of the Tunisian interim government promoting press freedom. Address: His Excellency Mouldi Sakri, Ambassador to Canada Embassy of the Republic of Tunisia 515 O'Connor Street Ottawa, ON K1S 3P8 Read CJFE's letter urging the Tunisian interim government to continue to promote press freedom. To learn more about IFEX-TMG visit their website, Facebook page or Twitter account. For a timeline of events in the Tunisian revolution, visit Al Jazeera.

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