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Tunisian news media relish new freedom

With Ben Ali's regime gone, newspapers and TV stations that served as official mouthpieces are revamping, reflecting reality rather than a dictator's vanity. 'Before, it was just empty words,' says one happy journalist.

January 21, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — The revolution didn't come just to the streets. It came to the beaten-down newsroom of an ousted ruler's meek mouthpiece, a newspaper where journalists didn't believe the news releases they were spoon-fed and passersby didn't believe the headlines they read on newsstands.

"We called the managing director and told him not to come in," said Samira Dami, a film critic who has just become one of the editors in chief of La Presse, Tunisia's 75-year-old French-language newspaper. "He represents the old regime, the one who writes good things for the regime and says everything is beautiful. He was a shoeshine boy."

Tunisia faces a long six months before its transitional government holds elections for a new government that could set a precedent for democracy in an authoritarian Arab world. But the country's media has taken to its new freedoms with stunning speed.

The ubiquitous ruling party of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali has disappeared. The watchful intelligence minders have slunk into hiding. The dreaded Ministry of Information, the country's censor, has been abolished.

And journalists are having a ball.

Newspapers that once featured front-page articles lauding First Lady Leila ben Ali's charitable works or the Interior Ministry's efforts at keeping order — and always, always, always included front-page photographs of Ben Ali himself — now publish hard-hitting stories about the political rifts in the country, food shortages caused by the weeks of unrest and victims of human rights abuses emerging from the shadows of the former regime.

Television has also gotten into the act. Even state television, which renamed and relaunched itself Wednesday evening with little fanfare, is striving for a balance that might shame Fox News and MSNBC. On Wednesday, for example, it enthusiastically covered the arrival of an exiled opposition figure who opposes the transitional government. The next day it broadcast the full speech of transitional President Fouad Mebazaa, who was head of the lower house of parliament under Ben Ali, defending the government.

In between news bulletins and speeches, viewers called in to share their thoughts, questions or reports.

"Hopefully, all the stores will open soon," said one viewer calling in to the previously state-controlled Hannibal television."I swear by God for those who are dead, the martyrs, I will work for my country and its dignity."

The journalists at La Presse began to revamp the paper Monday. Journalists who just weeks earlier suspected one another as informants began speaking openly. They started to get to know each other. After firing the managing director and demoting the editor to reporter, they elected an editorial leadership committee and set up a rotating editorship similar to the model used by the French daily Le Monde.

"The atmosphere was cool," said Dami, 52. "We talked about what happened. We created committees and decided to take the newspaper into our hands."

The inaugural issue of the overhauled newspaper, which is funded by classified and display advertising and sells for about $1.30, wasn't exactly scintillating.

It included stories on people struggling to make ends meet amid the days of chaos during the uprising, and an article about an attempt to name a street in the capital after Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old college graduate who worked as a street vendor and whose self-immolation over his economic misery and humiliation at the hands of authorities sparked the uprising.

It included reports from the various parties and capsule biographies of all the new members of the transitional government. Notably, it also covered those who reject the current Cabinet because it includes members of the former ruling party in key positions.

There was no picture of Ben Ali.

The next day's edition was more promising. It featured a lighthearted political cartoon of a car, representing the national unity government, filled with passengers each shouting different directions — "right!" "left!" "straight ahead!" A guy who rejects the new government because it includes members of Ben Ali's regime stands outside the car frowning. Thursday's front page featured photographs of extravagant jewelry seized from the former ruling family.

In some ways, life is tougher for the journalists. The editor and some staff members must bunk down in the office each night because of a curfew. They are now accountable to a newly emboldened public uninhibited about yelling at them when they disagree, such as over a cartoon depicting the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, that rankled some Muslims this week.

All worry that another tyrant may come to power and clamp down again. But for now, journalists revel in their new freedoms. At Thursday's editorial meeting, they argued over how far to go in reporting on the exploits of the former regime, with some worried that stirring up public sentiment would destabilize the fragile unity government.

"We're not at the service of the state anymore," countered another journalist.

Dami said she was proud to be working for a paper that actually reflected reality instead of a mouthpiece for a regime trying to shape it.

"Before," she said, "it was just empty words."

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Sihem Hassaini contributed to this report.

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