I recently returned from a great trip to Tunisia to report on the country’s first democratic election. I had many fascinating discussions there with journalists about the challenges of working in a new system.
Over super-powered coffee in the hundreds of smart cafes on the central Avenue Habib Bourguiba, I met journalists from independent agencies, Radio 6 Tunis, La Presse and Le Temps newspapers. To my surprise several told me they thought one of the biggest problems would be convincing media figures to break the culture of self-censorship prevalent under former President Ben Ali. Having spent time in Niger, another country which has recently freed itself from years of dictatorship, I had imagined journalists would be more worried about lack of control over a newly-liberated press.
Instead Tunisian journalists told me that some of their colleagues effectively know where their bread is buttered. Where one of the complaints about the recent electoral process was that too many of the ‘old guard’ politicians were still in positions of power, the same is true for journalists. Some have made a living from being close to figures in power, and they don’t want to jeopardise that by shedding too much light on what’s really going on.
But for all the concerns about the electoral process, in fact the voting day passed off better than anyone could hope for. Considering the chaos seen in neighbouring Libya, Tunisians ought to be praised for being patient with such a complex and crucial task of holding their first ever proper election, and writing a new constitution.
So it would not be a surprise if the attempts to reform the Tunisian media also proceed along a similar cautious and intelligent path, with journalists testing the water carefully before deciding how they want things to go. La Presse and Le Temps are both great newspapers, with a good range of stories and thoughtful comment and debate; and with global journalism undergoing such momentous changes with the arrival of online content, this could be a really exciting time for young Tunisian reporters.