Tunisian journalists aver without hesitation that the story of their syndicate is a story of the search for freedom. For others, it is more than this. The SNJT is one of the principal signs of the success of the democratic transition in Tunisia. From the early days of the revolution, the SNJT emerged as a major actor on both the labor and political landscape. Here we chronicle the march toward the central role that the SNJT plays today.

The new Arab sanctuary

That the SNJT has acquired a new standing and prominence, locally and regionally, is amply demonstrated. In May 2016, the syndicate hosted the 13th conference of the Federation of Arab Journalists, the biggest professional syndicate of Arab journalists. Typically hosted by countries in the Arab Levant, this conference was the first to be held in North Africa since the federation was founded in 1964.[1] The theme of the conference, held in Tunis, was “No impunity for crimes against journalists,” a taboo topic in the Arab region.[2] For some observers, Tunisia and the SNJT have become a sanctuary for Arab journalists escaping civil wars and harassment at home. Journalists from Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen have set up a professional and residential base in Tunisia. Khabab Abd al-Maqsoud, an Egyptian journalist and program producer residing in Tunisia, is one of dozens of Arab journalists who has found a space to practice journalism in the country. “In 2015, I decided to leave Egypt, after the media was reduced to just one line,” he says. “I was a correspondent and producer for ‘The Last Word’ [hosted by ONTV, a private Egyptian channel]. I wasn’t the only one who left the program. Most of the team is now out of Egypt. I didn’t hesitate to come to Tunisia, which continued its revolution and is still on the road to change.” Abd al-Maqsoud added, “The freedom and security in Tunisia makes me feel able to relate people’s stories as I see them.”[3]

A year after the provocatively themed conference of the Federation of Arab Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) took to the SNJT headquarters in Tunis on November 18, 2017 to announce the draft for a new international convention to protect journalists around the world. The release of the new convention in Tunis, attended by Anthony Bellanger, secretary-general of IFJ, and Neji Bghouri, head of the SNJT, was a clear recognition of the important role that Tunisia and its press had come to play in the Arab region, serving as a shelter for initiatives to protect journalists and defend freedom of the press. The IFJ also decided to hold its coming congress in mid-2019 in Tunisia under the aegis of the SNJT, a first for the Arab region and North Africa. The selection of Tunisia as the site of the IFJ general congress was a signal event in the history of the Arab press. Moaid Al-Lami, the president of the Federation of Arab Journalists chalked it up to “the struggle and effort of Tunisian journalists to consolidate the principles of freedom and democracy in their country.”[4]

In the seven years since the revolution, the SNJT has become a fixture in union activities and politics in Tunisia. Youssef Chahed, the fifth prime minister since the revolution, came to the seat of the syndicate in Tunis on January 14, 2017 to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution and the ninth anniversary of the SNJT’s transformation from an association to a national syndicate (January 13, 2008). It was from the syndicate that the prime minister announced a raft of social and economic policy decisions, in particular support for the press, which is experiencing a severe economic crisis that has led to the closure of several newspapers in recent years. The prime minister’s presence at the SNJT was a testament to the position now occupied by the journalists’ syndicate after decades of repression and harassment.

Longing for freedom

To understand the significance of the current incarnation of the SNJT, we must go back to the years leading up to the revolution. Those years were, according to Najiba Hamrouni, the former head of the SNJT and the first woman to lead a journalists’ syndicate in the Arab world, “years of struggle for legitimacy and a presence.”[5] In the five years before the revolution, Tunisian journalists waged a long battle to win their demand to make their association into a real syndicate, rejecting the role allotted to them by the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The regime sought to contain journalists within the association, one whose importance depended on its adherence to the red lines drawn by the regime. In that period, regime deliberations and the favor it showed to some candidates in the association’s elections were powerful determinants of its existence, financial support, and agenda.

The history of the SNJT is, in fact, the history of syndicates in Tunisia. The first professional collective organ for journalists in Tunisia, known as the Tunisian Press League, was established in 1962 before becoming the Association of Tunisian Journalists in 1969. In January 2008, Tunisian journalists were finally able to transform their civic association into the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists. In 2009, the government launched a campaign against SNJT, after the latter began criticizing the government for restricting press freedom and harshly treating journalists. The campaign led to the ousting and sidelining of the legitimate and independently elected executive bureau of SNJT and replacing it with a new bureau that was loyal to the president. In their various institutional formations, Tunisian journalists lived through the 30-year rule of Habib Bourguiba, the founder of the Tunisian republic in 1956, followed by a quarter century of the rule of President Ben Ali, as well as three post-revolution presidents. For some 50 years, Tunisian journalists have waged numerous battles for their own independence and media freedom. Journalist and veteran feminist activist Noura Borsali[6] worked in three newspapers, all of which the authorities managed to shutter before the revolution: Maghreb, al-Ra’i, and Le Phare. Over 30 years, she saw the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of Tunisian journalists. Describing the media clampdown that reached its peak in the final years before the revolution, she called it “a depressing state of dictatorship.”[7]

Winds of revolution

After the revolution, the transitional authorities, with a push from the SNJT and civil society, adopted various pieces of interim legislation before the elections on October 23, 2011.[8] The revolution brought justice to the ‘legitimate’ bureau of the SNJT, and Tunisian journalists voted by an overwhelming majority, to endorse their previously sidelined/ousted bureau. The SNJT was one of the first Tunisian syndicates to hold its general congress after the revolution, on June 4 and 5, 2011. Najiba Hamrouni was elected as the head of the syndicate—the first woman to hold the position in Tunisia and the Arab region. At the time, the country was in the midst of a fierce political struggle between democratic forces and the Islamists and their allies, who had won the first democratic elections held in the country.

At this juncture there were questions about what the SNJT should do in this decisive battle of the transition period. Where would the SNJT stand? Would it play an active, independent role? Would it be a tool of political actors in the battle underway or simply a passive observer? It was a true test of the syndicate and its freshly elected bureau. The SNJT bureau was able to work out a formula to appropriately position the syndicate on the union and political field. The key to that formula was the concept of independence, while affirming in every stance the syndicate took that it was a core part of the political battle for liberties in Tunisia. This role was recognized by Noureddine Taboubi, the secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the biggest labor union in Tunisia. At the inauguration of the fourth SNJT congress on May 19, 2017, Taboubi said that the syndicate had smartly overcome every adversity since the early days of the revolution and “the majority of media workers were tireless in their defense of freedom against all attempts to undercut it.”

Journalist Hanan Zabis, a member of the SNJT’s freedoms committee under Hamrouni (2011–2014), confirms this assessment. She said the syndicate chose “to directly engage in the political struggle for freedoms, all freedoms, against the Troika government.”[9] Explaining this choice, Zabis said, “That was the period in which a new journalistic reality was established that broke with state dominance of the media and consolidated freedom of the press, respect for professional ethics, and the defense of journalists’ rights through an integrated legal system.”[10]

In truth, the political prominence of the SNJT came in response to the new spirit alive in post-revolution Tunisia, where civil society organizations and syndicates, especially the UGTT, played a central role in the success of the Tunisian transition. It was due to the special part played by trade unions and civil society that Tunisia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Although three Arab figures had received the international award in the past, this was the first time that Arab organizations were bestowed with the honor.[11]

The Peace Prize demonstrated international recognition of the network of independent syndicates and associations in Tunisia and their role in the success of the so-called Tunisian democratic exception. While the SNJT was not among the Quartet that received the prize,[12] it was nevertheless a fundamental element in the associational and labor network of dozens of syndicates and associations, repelling every attempt to quash freedoms in the country and upholding the values of pluralism and diversity in Tunisian society. On the media front, the SNJT was a leading voice calling on each successive post-revolution government to respect the independence and freedom of the press.

The battle for independence

After the Islamists and their allies assumed power in the wake of the October 2011 elections, government-friendly media appointments and attempts to contain the media grew more frequent. The government began to appoint figures politically and ideologically aligned with it to preside over public media organs and installed loyalists to head some confiscated media outlets like the daily Assabah, Shems FM, in addition to the public television (Channels 1 and 2) “without any real standards or competence,” according to statements from the SNJT.

The government’s decisions in this period were justified in the eyes of its supporters, who saw the Tunisian media as biased and overly critical of the government. Some attacked the media, smearing it as disgraceful and shameful.cThe desire to bring the media to heel was clearly expressed by Hamadi Jebali, the first post-revolution prime minister, associated with the Ennahda movement. Claiming that the media did not represent the new political reality, he said on public radio on December 19, 2011, “The media now does not express the popular will as embodied in the election results.” In the struggle for independence with the new post-revolution authority, several journalists critical of the government were smeared. In March 2012, government partisans staged a sit-in in front of the public television headquarters “to purify the media,” demanding the dismissal of those they considered “enemies of the revolution”—for them, media figures who aired criticism of the government and its policies on public television.

Pressure from the government and its Islamist allies reached a peak with the violent assault of several media workers and bloggers. These violations were exposed and detailed in the freedom report issued by the SNJT on May 3, 2012,[13] in which the syndicate accused the government of attempting to suppress press freedom and tame the media. In the wake of the report, which perturbed the government, the SNJT did not hesitate to take a firm position on all assaults of journalists and the attempt to subordinate public media, particularly through official appointments. The syndicate met the assault of the government and its supporters with an equally forceful response, as Tunisian journalists, led by the syndicate, staged more and more protests. The resistance and response to the assault on media independence culminated in two general strikes, the first in the country’s history. Bringing the media to a standstill, the strikes embarrassed the government and spurred it to rethink several actions it had taken.[14] Most significantly, the strikes prompted the government and Tunisian parliament to respond to the demand for a high broadcast commission and to stop the dismissal of journalists from public or state majority-owned media institutions.

The protests and strikes led by the SNJT remapped the media landscape, persuading the government that there was no choice but to engage with the syndicate and accept its role as a collective professional guarantor of a free, independent media in Tunisia. The SNJT’s bid would not have succeeded without coordination with local associations and syndicates or the resolute support offered by external organizations such as International Media Support which provided the SNJT with operational and structural guidance enabled it to operate independently from constraints including financial pressure.[15]

The institutionalization of the SNJT

The SNJT emerged victorious from the battle for independence, while recognizing that any such victory for independence and media freedom is by nature transitory, requiring ongoing efforts regardless of the government in power. Emboldened nevertheless, the syndicate realized another decisive battle lay ahead, no less significant than the struggle for independence and press freedom: the battle to transform the SNJT into an institution with a stable administrative structure, elected bodies, and a model of good governance that would enable it to manage the union internally. Without this, the syndicate could not hope to successfully meet external challenges.

Mahdi Jlassi, currently a member of the SNJT executive bureau, represents the new generation of Tunisian journalists who have seen the structural evolution of the SNJT over the past five years. “The journalists’ syndicate operates more systematically and effectively since 2014—that is, since the establishment of the executive administration, the communications department, the observatory for violations against journalists, and the observatory for violations of professional ethics,” he said. Jlassi added that these institutional developments which have made the syndicate an internally cohesive institution have gone hand-in-hand with the upgrading of the syndicate’s central and regional structures. Members of the regional SNJT branches have been elected, and working journalists in the provinces are now allowed to join the regional SNJT branches, whose membership was previously monopolized by journalists affiliated with the provincial public broadcasters.[16]

The focus on local union work and the growing range and coverage of the SNJT caught the attention of representatives of other civil society organizations operating in Tunisia. “The broad representation of the syndicate, especially the revival of the regional branches, supported the syndicate’s role in monitoring various violations against journalists,” said Yousra Fraous, a feminist activist and representative of the International Federation for Human Rights. “Similarly, the issuance of periodic thematic reports has allowed the syndicate to operate with the kind of professionalism lacking in many other national civic institutions.”[17]

The new administrative order of the SNJT has also permitted the members of the executive bureau to better devote themselves to their union missions, giving them more time to focus on syndicate issues while leaving the administrative, executive, and communication tasks to specialists in the field, appointed by the syndicate and based on objective criteria. The structural shift was designed to create an institutional administration capable of steady operation amid the regular rotation of members elected in syndicate congresses. Fahem Boukadous, the SNJT’s current executive director, says that this would not have worked were it not for the dedication of local and international organizations interested in the Tunisian professional media syndicate. “There had to be international partnerships with specialized organizations to ensure the success of this new course,” he said. “We set up long-term strategic partnerships to monitor the development of the syndicate’s internal governance and its sustainability.” Boukadous pointed out that these partnerships are based on a pivotal principle—to wit, work based on the genuine needs of the Tunisian partner, which eliminates the potential for paternalism or manipulation.[18]

In fact, the initial groundwork for the institutionalization and administrative systematization of the syndicate began to be laid with the revolution, but the struggle for independence and media freedom eclipsed the issue. With the full focus of the executive administration under SNJT leader Neji Bghouri and the prime minister’s affirmation of the syndicate’s ownership of its current headquarters in central Tunis, the SNJT is now positioned to operate with more latitude and independence. Journalist Rim Souadi, who was the head of the syndicate committee at Dar Assabah in the previous term, says, “The institutionalization of the syndicate had a clear impact on general performance, whether in terms of addressing the precarious professional conditions of journalists or fighting the firing of journalists and the closure of media outlets.” Saoudi adds, “But good governance and administration also requires abandoning personal biases, interests, and relations when making decisions, both for members of the elected bureau and members of the executive administration.” Souadi points to “the vagueness of the criteria recently adopted by the syndicate in configuring the list of journalists whose status was recently settled and who were officially absorbed by public radio.”[19] This was a set of decisions recently announced by the prime minister during his last visit to the syndicate headquarters.

Between union work and politics

While personal factors and relationships cannot be fully shed in public issues, no one today denies that the institution building of the SNJT enabled the syndicate to dedicate itself more closely to professional issues for journalists and better organize its work thanks to the efficient internal division of labor. In addition to governance and decision-making within the syndicate, some journalists had other criticisms, most crucially the SNJT’s retreat from its political role, which had reached a peak in the early years of the revolution. Hanen Zbis, a member of the freedoms committee under Nejiba Hamrouni, says that under syndicate head Neji Bghouri (first elected in 2014 and reelected in May 2017), the SNJT has had easier relations with the political authorities, with alternating periods of confrontation and calm. “The new syndicate bureau chose an alliance with the association of newspaper managing directors,” she said. “It placed more emphasis on achieving material and professional gains for journalists than playing politics and launching an open war on the government.”[20]

But is this a weakness or strength of the new SNJT bureau? Has the institutional, administrative, and labor role of the syndicate outweighed the political role it took up after the revolution? Does institutionalization and internal governance conflict with political action and efficacy? Or is it that the threats to media freedom and liberties have declined since the October 2014 elections that brought Nidaa Tounes to power and swept away the Islamist-led Troika? These questions were hotly debated within the journalists’ syndicate, an indication of the dynamism of the media sector, in which the SNJT has become polestar for media outlets of all stripes. The new executive bureau says that the important political and professional role played by the syndicate since the revolution remains unchanged by the new political balance in the country that followed the Islamists’ relative defeat in the last parliamentary elections.

Many journalists cite “the day of rage,” organized by the SNJT on February 2, 2018 to protest repeated security harassment and assaults on journalists, as evidence that the current syndicate bureau is not seeking to appease the governments formed after the October 2014 election. Current members of the executive bureau say that the institutionalization of the syndicate and its ties with other media and labor organizations are governed by shared interests and principles in defense of media and political freedoms in Tunisia. Outside the media sector, feminist activist Yosra Frawes finds some fault with the journalists’ syndicate for not adequately engaging in battles for civil and individual liberties. She says that the SNJT’s stances on some issues involving the violation of such rights are “wan,” noting that freedom of expression is a universal principle. Fraous speculates that this is due to “the political and personal affiliations of some syndicate leaders.”

This criticism is a subject for debate, for a focus on associational work and a dedication to a specific area lies at the heart of any organization’s role, though this does not preclude the possibility of coordination and complementarity in the defense of public and civil liberties. Despite these criticisms, nearly everyone believes that the SNJT is undergoing a significant, multidimensional transformation that will entrench it as a strong, independent professional organization acting to defend media freedom and the social and professional rights of journalists.

Already it is clear that the journalists’ syndicate in Tunisia has gone beyond merely influencing the media sector to directly contributing to the country’s successful democratization. Given this singular experience, it can be seen as an example worthy of emulation and a model to be exported to the rest of the Arab region.

Highlights of the report

  • The International Federation of Journalists will hold its coming congress in mid-2019 in Tunisia, under the aegis of SNJT, the first event of its kind to be held in the Arab region and North Africa.
  • In the seven years since the revolution, the SNJT has become a fixture in union activities and politics in Tunisia, prompting Youssef Chahed, the fifth post-revolution prime minister after the revolution, to announce a set of decrees on the media from the SNJT headquarters.
  • In the five years leading up to the revolution, Tunisian journalists waged a long struggle to win their demand to become a real syndicate, forgoing the role designed for them by the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which sought to confine to journalists to an association that could be contained depending on its adherence to the regime’s red lines.
  • The revolution brought justice for the legitimate, ousted/sidelined bureau of the SNJT, which was reinstated by Tunisian journalists by an overwhelming majority. The SNJT was one of the first Tunisian syndicates to hold its general congress after the revolution.
  • After the revolution, the SNJT bureau devised a formula to appropriately position the syndicate on the union and political field. The key to that formula was independence coupled with an affirmation in every stance the syndicate took that it was a core part of the political battle for liberties in Tunisia.
  • The protests and strikes led by the SNJT after the revolution remapped the media landscape, persuading successive governments that there was no choice but to engage with the syndicate and accept its role as a collective professional guarantor of a free, independent media in Tunisia.
  • The new administrative order of the SNJT allowed members of the executive bureau to better devote themselves to their core mission, giving them more time to focus on syndicate issues while leaving the administrative, executive, and communication tasks to specialists in the field.
  • An administrative structure capable of steady operation amid the regular rotation of members elected in syndicate congresses is the fulcrum on which the process of SNJT’s internal governance and institutionalization rests.
  • Members of the new executive bureau say that the SNJT’s important post-revolution political and professional role remains unchanged by the new political balance in the country that followed the Islamists decline in power.

The SNJT has gone beyond merely influencing the media sector to directly contributing to the country’s successful democratization. Given this singular experience, it can be seen as an example, a model for export to the rest of the Arab region.

[1] The conference was held in Tunis on May 21–22, 2016.

[2] According to Reporters Without Borders, 19 of the 51 journalists killed around the world in 2016 were in the Arab world, and prisons across the region are packed with journalists and bloggers.

[3] Personal communication with the author.

[4] Statement from the Federation of Arab Journalists, May 2, 2017.

[5] Statement from Najiba Hamrouni after submitting her file to the Truth and Dignity Commission, Jan. 28, 2016.

[6] Borsali died on Nov. 13, 2017.

[7] From the edited volume, Sahafiyun Tunisiyun fi Muwajahat al-Diktaturiya, Tunisia Center for Press Freedom, Jul. 2013.

[8] Circular 115 and 216 of Nov. 2, 2011, which offered greater protection for journalists; prohibited their imprisonment for publication crimes; and granted the freedom to issue periodicals and newspapers by abolishing legal licensing conditions in force before the revolution. The goal of the licensing regime under Ben Ali was to monitor publications and limit the freedom of publication based on loyalty to the regime. In addition, in the early days of the revolution, the External Communication Agency was also dissolved. The agency was created under Ben Ali to control the media and the distribution of ads based on loyalty and obedience to the regime.

[9] The Troika government consisted of the Ennahda movement, the Congress for the Republic, and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties.

[10] Personal communication with the author.

[11] Past Arab recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize were Anwar al-Sadat, Yasser Arafat, and Tawakkol Karman.

[12] The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet included the UGTT, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

[13] The annual report on press freedoms is issued on May 3 of every year, a tradition maintained by the journalists’ syndicate to this day. A date of symbolic importance for Tunisian journalists, it commemorates the Windhoek Declaration, issued in Namibia on May 3, 1991, a statement of principles for an independent, free African media.

[14] The SNJT chose to strike on Oct. 17, 2012, and a year later on Sep. 17, 2013, to compel the government to respect the freedom and independence of the media. The two strikes prompted the government to reconsider its ties with the committees to protect the revolution, popular militias made up of Islamist extremists known for their repeated assaults on journalists.

[15] SNJT’s partnership with International Media Support is one of many concluded under a long-term funding by the Danish Arab Partnership Program.

[16] Personal communication with the author.

[17] Personal communication with the author.

[18] Personal communication with the author.

[19] Personal communication with the author.

[20] Personal communication with the author.