Last month, I was invited to Tunis to participate in a roundtable debate on the relationship between the Tunisian media, the security services and civil society. The event was hosted by the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), as part of the project Responsible and Free Reporting on Security Issues in Tunisia, and attended by leading Tunisian media actors, officials from the Tunisian Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Tunisian academics as well as international experts. The aim of the event was to encourage an open dialogue between key actors, to discuss the main challenges facing Tunisian media in reporting on security issues – particularly terrorism – and to give participants the opportunity to understand the perspectives and needs of other parties.
Just over four years on from the Tunisian Revolution, the relationship between the security services and the media is in a state of continuous transition. Indeed, one of the aims of the 2011 civil uprising was to draw attention to, and change, the lack of political freedoms afforded the Tunisian people. Questions related to freedom of speech and expression as well as freedom of information were, thus, at the heart of the upheaval.
The revolution did bring about a new political era. It made possible a transformation of the media landscape by the breaking of the previous regime’s control of the media and an increase in private media outlets. And whilst the legal framework governing broadcast, print and new journalism in Tunisia continues to undergo reform, definitions of ‘terrorism’, ‘civil unrest’ and ‘national security’ are being renegotiated. At the same time, the security services are slowly getting to grips with a new reality where power relations are gradually changing and where the Tunisian people have access to a wealth of information through a variety of (online) sources. The media is, therefore, high on the political agenda as also evident from a comment made by one of the officials from the Tunisian Ministry of Defence: ‘For many years, I didn’t have to speak to the media. Now I do.’
Old practices die hard, however. And although the groundwork is in place for building a new relationship based on trust, this is not something that happens overnight. It takes time. Certainly, the discussion on this particular Friday morning in central Tunis demonstrated that tensions still exist. In fact, responding to my talk on the ‘military media machine’ a Tunisian media expert offered a fascinating insight into one of the consequences of the revolution when he commented that ‘the Tunisian media machine is broken’. Whilst the military machine as well as that of the other security services remain powerful, the media are lacking the structure and organisation they used to have. The media landscape is punctured by individual agendas. Media outlets are emerging as the key political and ideological battleground. Resources are scarce (or even non-existent). Reporters work without appropriate training. And professional and ethical standards remain low. A broken machine.
The pressure is now on both the security services and the media to ensure appropriate and responsible reporting on all forms of security issues, and to continue to inform the Tunisian public. Finding, and indeed agreeing on, an acceptable balance between the freedoms of the media to report on sensitive issues, the military’s need for secrecy and protection, and the people’s ‘right to know’ is not easy. Safeguarding media freedom is often seen as one of the media’s greatest concerns whilst safeguarding security is seen as the military’s primary duty. Therefore, even as both institutions serve the public, an understanding of competing ideals between media access and military secrecy often prevails. Although the simplicity of such accounts fails to acknowledge the complexities of these seemingly opposing aims, it highlights the difficulties inherent in trying to carve a clear path for the coverage of security issues in Tunisian media.
Tunisia is, however, taking its first tentative steps towards finding a solution, rather than looking for the problems. The MDI project, supported by passionate discussions on all sides, will hopefully pave the way for improved cooperation.
In a few days, I will be back in Tunisia to participate in the final event of this project. The aim is to put forward recommendations that may lead to commitment and action from all the key stakeholders involved. Maybe only time will tell whether the media, the security services and the Tunisian people can built a new relationship based on trust and respect. But what these discussions have highlighted is that there is great passion and strong commitment on all sides to protect the freedoms brought about by the revolution. Now, a system needs to be put in place that can harness this passion to set out acceptable compromises and a clear direction for the future.
Dr Rikke Bjerg Jensen is a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Law (with a more or less permanent home in the Geography Department) at Royal Holloway University of London. With a background in the media, her research sits at the intersection of journalism, conflict and security.