In conversation: media and security in transition – the case of Tunisia

By Rikke Bjerg Jensen and Mark Wenham

Six years ago, on a military base in rural Germany near the Dutch border, we both took part in a two-week NATO exercise designed to train military personnel in dealing with the media – Mark as the official NATO spokesperson and Rikke as a reporter. A few weeks back, we met again. Not in rural Germany, this time, but in central Tunis where we were both invited to speak at a press conference held in connection with the launch of the Media Diversity Institute’s (MDI) report on Media and Security in Tunisia. Opened by the new Tunisian State Secretary for Security, Rafik Chelli, the event was attended by representatives from the Tunisian Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Defence, local media and academia.

Media and security in Tunis press conference, March 2015

Whilst the conference marked the end of MDI’s project on Responsible and Free Reporting on Security Issues in Tunisia, in which we have both taken part, the question on most people’s lips this Saturday morning was an encouraging one: how do we continue to improve the relationship between the media, the securPress conference Tunisity forces and the Tunisian public? Mohamed Ali Laroui from the Tunisian Ministry of Information hoped that 2015 would ‘be the year of improvement’. Stressing the importance of an action plan for the future, official spokesperson from the Tunisian Ministry of Defence, Belhassen Oueslati, said: ‘a study without any action cannot help very much.’

But, with the terrorist attack at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis last month fresh in our memory, what are the key building blocks of such an action plan? This is precisely the question we asked ourselves when, after the conference, we were asked to put together a strategy for implementing the recommendations identified in the report. Our discussion orbited around three key elements: organisation; trust; and training – from a media and a security perspective.

Organisation

RIKKE: As I have written elsewhere on this site, the organisation of Tunisian media is ‘broken’. Whilst the revolution led to a period of uncertainties about what the new freedoms meant for the practice of journalism, especially in the context of terrorism, it also sparked the need for clearer policy and ethical standards in the reporting of security issues. Particularly, a code of ethics is high on the wish list for most media professionals – and for the security services, not to forget.

MARK:  From the security forces perspective it is clear that while the basic structures are in place already there still needs to be the resources to deal with a much more active and hungry media. This will require not only more resources in the press offices but also more press officers in the security forces units. A more pro-active approach to strategic communications and dealing with the media rather than the more traditional and reactive approach requires the ability to produce content, embrace all aspect of information planning, and be able to provide some insight into the workings of the security forces. Such changes will not be easy but could help in not only assisting free reporting but also in strengthening the efficiency and legitimacy of the security forces.

Trust

RIKKE: Trust is central to the work of any media in a democratic society; trust in the sources of information and trust from the public. Yet, building trust is perhaps also the most difficult challenge to overcome in any transition process from authoritarianism. Since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, the media landscape has undergone serious changes. Nothing is as it used to be. From having been a closely controlled instrument of the regime to representing a range of diverse voices, Tunisian media are experiencing a series of newfound liberties. Media outlets are no longer simply echoing the state line. Media output is diverse. And journalists are increasingly in a position where they can experience, challenge, and engage with political discourse. This has, however, not necessarily fostered trust between the different actors. In times of uncertainty, reporting on issues of terrorism and security demands a certain trust in the information being communicated. Yet, building trust in a media landscape that has only recently experienced certain democratic freedoms is not straightforward. And whilst the Tunisian media might have been released from the control of the former rulers, seeing the security services (and other state departments) as reliable and trustworthy sources of information remains problematic. Only through day-to-day working practices and training can this form of trust and credibility be encouraged. That said, on all sides, there is an urgent desire to build trust.

MARK: Developing mutual trust takes time and needs to be grown. The security forces need to establish themselves as the credible voice on security issues, but it is no longer a given. Trust needs to be developed through building better relationships with the media.  As in most relationships this is a two-way street, and while the security services will expect the media to respect matters of operational security and report with balance, so the media will expect greater openness and transparency.  It is so important to the public that their security services are seen to be the legitimate providers of security. How this is portrayed by the media will go a considerable way to achieve this. This is a complex area that requires a meeting of minds and a mutual understanding of each other’s business to succeed that will only come about through more engagement between both parties. In the last few months during my involvement in this project I have witnessed at first hand a real improvement in this relationship and a thawing of some of the previously held differences. This is so encouraging for the future.

Training

MARK: Training to deal with a free media in both a pro-active and reactive way is vital to achieve mutual respect and improve overall effectiveness.  Security forces officers need to understand how the media works, how journalists work, the power of social media and how to maximise the information environment to their advantage, especially during crisis. This will require a new approach to be adopted to include the general education of security forces officers during initial training and later career courses in the workings of the media and the information environment. In addition, specific training is required for some security forces individuals to deal directly with the media on the front line as press officers, camera teams, planning officers and spokespeople, as well as having a fully trained communications staff in the ministries.

RIKKE: From a media perspective, and although the foundations for free and responsible reporting on terrorism in particular are already in place in Tunisia, journalists continue to work without proper guidance and resources. Professional standards remain low, whilst training rarely includes issues of security and extremism. Without appropriate training, and without the relevant knowledge on these issues, those reporters, so long banned from exercising their journalistic function, continue to operate without the necessary skills to convert the freedoms secured by the revolution into workable media practices. This is critical, as without this form of training the media are unable to fulfil their role as watchdog. Now, the challenge lies in creating a space where existing experience and best practice can be shared through mentorship and tailored training programmes.

***

These are not opposing viewpoints. Quite the contrary, in fact. There is general consensus that in order to encourage free and responsible reporting on security issues in Tunisia, the relationship between the media, the security services and the Tunisian public needs to improve. There is also a clear recognition from all sides that the state of affairs is not as good as it could, or should, be. But there is an urgent desire to correct this. The willingness to work together is already evident. So is the commitment from key actors. Now, the momentum is there to ensure that this sense of willingness and commitment is translated into on-the-ground activities. This will no doubt take time – and probably longer than the three-year action plan. But the page has been turned on a new chapter in the workings of the media, the security services and their relationship with the Tunisian public. The building blocks are slowly being formed.

Dr Rikke Bjerg Jensen is a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Law (with a more or less permanent home in the Department of Geography) at Royal Holloway University of London. With a background in the media, her research sits at the intersection of journalism, conflict and security.

Mark Wenham has just completed a full career as an Infantry officer in the British Army. The last 10 years have been spent in media and communications as well as strategic communications and influence operations. He has been a spokesman for UK forces and NATO in Afghanistan and is now a consultant in crisis communications and crisis management.

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