Aug. 14, 2012 - Letter of Resignation of Kamel Labidi as Head of Tunisia's INRIC
No power can deprive Tunisians of their right to a free press, like all other free people in the world
By Kamel Labidi, Journalist and former Chair of INRIC
I could not imagine that attempts to abort the media reform process would reach a peak at a time when two former leaders of the Tunisian League for the defence of Human Rights, and a former newspaper director and political prisoner hold the positions of President of the Republic, Chairman of the Constituent Assembly and Head of the Government respectively. Indeed, these three men, with whom I had friendly relations when times were hard, suffered a lot from the muzzling of the press, and are aware of what Tunisia has lost in various fields as a result of terrorizing journalists and criminalizing freedom of expression. People cognisant of the press and human rights situation in Tunisia know that the repeated attempts to abort the media reform process started several months before the Ennahdha party won the elections of 23 October 2011, with random shots fired at the National Authority for the Reform of Media and Communications (INRIC) and aimed at serving personal or corporate interests, or defending dubious privileges. These were granted to some parties either in the days of the ousted president and his kin, or for the purpose of accommodating the new powers that be. Unfortunately for the shooters, the shots only harmed the reputation of those who fired them, both at home and abroad, and strengthened the resolve INRIC members to continue discharging the tasks entrusted to them according to decree-law number 10 of 2011.
What is really disturbing today is that the most powerful of the three leaders and the closest to the journalistic profession, as former director of the Al Fajr newspaper before it was terminated and he was arrested in 1991, and the man who had a long-standing relationship with international organisations upholding press freedom Mr Hamadi Jebali, was the first to promise, before he submitted his government’s programme to the Constituent Assembly in December 2011, that he would work for a free and pluralistic press in Tunisia consistent with international standards, and similar to democratic states.
Regrettably, only three weeks after this promise was made to me personally more than once, public opinion was confronted with the surprise appointment by the head of the government of the CEOs of three state-owned media, announced on 7 January 2012 without prior consultation with the concerned parties, using the same method contrary to the rules of good governance and transparency as the ousted president and dictators of his ilk, who prefer allegiance to competence in selecting senior officials.
Not only was this arbitrary method adopted in selecting the CEOs of the TAP press agency, and the new printing, publishing and press company that publishes the La Presse and Al Sahafaha newspapers, but the head of the government, in a move unprecedented since independence, also crossed new red lines by appointing an editorial director of Tunisian public television, and chief editors of La Presse and Al Sahafah.
After the protest meeting at la Kasbah on 9 January 2012 held by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists to denounce these decisions and interference with the internal affairs of public media, the head of the government promised to open the way to consultations and dialogue, benefit from international experience in the field of media reform, and avoid mistaken and disappointing decisions.
During the same meeting –held at his request, Mr Hamadi Jebali also expressed his readiness to exchange opinions concerning urgent recommendations for media reform which the INRIC had sent to him, Mr Moncef Marzouki, President of the Republic, Mr Mustapha Ben Jaafar, Chairman of the Constituent Assembly, and all members of the Constituent Assembly in late December 2011. One of these recommendations was to expedite the publication of implementing orders for decree-laws 115 and 116 regulating the print, electronic and audio-visual media.
Once more, this promise soon proved to be similar to the earlier pledge by the head of the government to work for guaranteeing free and pluralistic media, consistent with international standards of free expression, and has failed to materialize so far.
As the months go by, one has the impression that some parties are working in the dark so that the head of the government’s promises remain unfulfilled, and that one of these parties’ priorities in the democratic transition period is to take over public media and domesticate private media and most media men as soon as possible.
Any citizen may wonder whether it was a mere coincidence that dialogue with the party legally entrusted with providing a vision of media reform –the INRIC was ended at the same time as siege warfare and aggressions targeted media men at the Tunisian public television, coupled with the threat of privatizing it, though similar state-owned enterprises exist in all democratic countries. Further, advisors to the head of the government organised the so-called national consultation on the legal framework for the media on 27-28 April 2012, by relying on figures responsible for engineering the misrepresentation policy under Ben Ali, and well-known for calling on the dictator to remain in power to complete his “civilisational project.”
The answer is naturally that it was no coincidence. Many signs show that the termination of dialogue and aggressions against Tunisian public television, and the threat of privatizing it, together with the organisation of a “national” consultation –which was boycotted by INRIC and the National Union of Tunisian Journalists because it was based on misrepresentation and deception, just like “national” consultations under “The Architect of Change” (Ben Ali) – seem to be parts of the same strategy. The latter aims at aborting the media reform process and imposing a new hegemony on the entire media scene before the next parliamentary and presidential elections, and perhaps after them too, if Tunisia is so fated, and those who believe in the right of Tunisian men and women to build a truly democratic regime remain as scattered as they are now.
Indeed, why else, for instance, should advisers and assistants to the head of the government resort to ending dialogue with INRIC and the National Union of Tunisian Journalists and make declarations contrary to Mr Hamadi Jebali’s promises? How else could any rational being explain their support for the minority opposed to decree-laws 115 and 116, in coordination with the most narrow-minded of Ennahdha leaders, quick to brand as traitors those whose opinions are different from theirs? It is widely known that the minority opposed to the decree-laws were loyal to the ousted president and that they spare no effort to sow discord among media men and weaken their professional organisations, giving precedence to their personal ambitions over the general interest.
A misrepresentation campaign was conducted against the two decree-laws, though, prior to their publication in the official gazette on 4 November 2011, they were prepared by unprecedented wide-ranging consultations with professionals and trade unionists, and a large number of national and international experts and human rights organisations. The campaign went as far as casting doubts on the decree-laws because several private media owners sympathised with the minority opposed to them, especially decree-law 116 which provides setting up an independent regulatory body for audio-visual communication.
Apparently, one of the reasons for the government and its supporting majority at the National Constituent Assembly failing to implement decree-law 116 so far was to give the opportunity to a number of its activists and sympathisers to set up radio and TV stations outside the legal framework which does not permit political or religious movements to do so. Indeed, one of the TV stations set up in Tunisia without permission from the High Authority for Audio-visual Communication which was to be created some nine months ago, is the Al Zeituna TV, run by the young Oussama Ben Salem, a member of the Consultative Council of the Ennahdha party and the son of Moncef Ben Salem, the Tunisian Minister of Higher Education.
That TV channel, though still at the stage of experimental broadcasting, has already secured a scoop as a result of its close ties with decision making centres and its clear partisanship for the Ennahdha party. The scoop consisted in conducting at the end of June an interview contrary to journalistic and ethical rules with the former prime minister of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in his prison in Tripoli. This brought back to mind televised police questioning of political opposition members in which journalists do not appear on the screen and prisoners confess their mistakes and describe the great care provided to them by their jailers. This is exactly what happened in the case of Baghdadi Mahmoudi, whose extradition to Libya last June caused a deep crisis between the head of the government and the President of the Republic and a wave of protests in national and international human rights circles.
Consultations concerning decree-laws 115 and 116 under transitional authorities without any popular legitimacy were wide-ranging and comprehensive. Oddly enough, they were considerably less so after the free and transparent election of the National Constituent Assembly, as attested by the agreement reached within the constitutional bodies committee concerning the article on setting up an “independent media authority” reported by the media on 4 July 2012. It is hard for any honest observer or researcher to imagine how the Constituent Assembly, dominated by the Ennahdha party and its two allies, can elect an “independent” nine-member media authority, unless the term independent has become adjustable and reduced to an empty shell that anybody can use without any consequence.
This surprise announcement concerning the setting up of an “independent media authority” came only hours after the INRIC had announced that it was terminating its activities in the absence of any measure or initiative by the government towards media reform. Most media men are concerned that the expected new-born would carry out the same censorship and misrepresentation as information ministries in oppressive regimes. Indeed, the new legislators have entrusted to it the mission of organising and regulating the entire media sector, forgetting what was explained to them by INRIC and stated in the INRIC general report a month earlier, namely that the regulation of the print press is the business of representative bodies of journalists and newspapermen and is called self-regulation.
More surprisingly, the new political decision-makers insist on envisaging solutions for media reform without referring to successful foreign experiences in the field, or taking note of the general report of INRIC, which came out last April, and is considered a reference document by many seasoned researchers and people cognisant of media reform experiences throughout the world. The document, prepared by experts and professionals, includes a diagnosis of the reality of the media landscape, an explanation of the benefits of the new legal framework, and recommendations that can contribute to improving the performance of the media and building the capacities of media men.
Some of these recommendations advise the setting up of mechanisms and standards to select the directors of public media in stark contrast with the series of appointments based on allegiance and nepotism that have not stopped since last January. These appointments did not only concern the public media, but extended to the media institutions formerly owned by members of the ousted president’s family.
It is not fair to claim that the new authorities alone are responsible for the ills affecting of the media and communications sector, and the dangers besetting it. Indeed, the INRIC has documented for instance several professional mistakes and flagrant violations of the ethics of the journalistic profession, as well as shameful claims concerning media reform made by a number of journalists and media researchers.
The three leaders of Tunisia and decision-makers in the National Constituent Assembly bear great responsibility for attempts, on-going since the beginning of this year, to abort the media reform process, domesticate the public media again, terrorize journalists and bloggers, the beating and jailing of a number of those, and the criminalisation of the freedom of expression, leading several Tunisian and international professional and human rights organisations to blow the whistle.
Part of the responsibility also lies with those journalists and academics who gave a hand to the strong men of the new regime and the media interest groups that rose under the protection of the previous absolute power. The INRIC announced early last month its decision to terminate its activities and reject the position of stooges that the authorities sought to impose on them. This was only an urgent message that no party or authority can deprive Tunisian men and women of their basic rights, including their right to a free and pluralistic press like all other free people in the world. To achieve this, the entire civil society must stand up in defence of, and solidarity with, these rights.