On the morning of May 13, more than thirty individuals from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Italy, and France gathered in a small conference room in Tunis. Their assignment: to discuss the practice of journalism in the south and north of the Mediterranean. Organized by the online magazine OrientXXI, the seminar was animated by journalists, researchers, and information and communication specialists among others. From morning until evening, lively exchange centered around two questions: One news, different views? and Tunisian press 2016: What issues and challenges?
By no means an exhaustive report of participants’ insight, observations, and reflections, the following highlights some of the points covered, debates sparked, and questions raised throughout the day.
The importance of words and language
Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd opened the floor with a discussion on “terms that divide,” words for which deviations in meaning “are not benign.” Beginning with terrorism, martyr, consensus, interlocutors identified half a dozen highly charged, ambiguous, politicized and instrumentalized terms. Whereas quotation marks are frequently used to “distance oneself from the general comprehension” of a term, such punctuation also places further emphasis on a word that already has high visibility in the media. In other cases, pairs of words—such as left-right, which presumes the existence of political balance, or Islamism/secularism, which presumes universally-understood definitions—reduce complex, context-specific concepts to almost black and white opposites. Samy Ghorbal of Jeune Afrique noted, for instance, the absurdity of references to Nidaa Tounes and Beji Caid Essebsi as secularist, chuckling that the President precedes each public address with “Besmillah…” (“In the name of God the Benificent the Merciful”). The meanings and connotations of many words are also lost or transformed in translation.
Instead of objectivity, revealing the complexity of reality
Whatever the language or words chosen, it was surmised, the work of a journalist is to present clear, precise, and pertinent information. The work of a journalist is to be objective, said one, a remark that was quickly countered by freelance reporter Laura-Maï Gaveriaux who referred to objectivity in journalism as a myth, as “complete intellectual fraud.” Researcher Jérôme Heurtaux interjected that there are degrees of objectivity, the possibility of being more objective and less subjective than others. Instead of objectivity, Gaveriaux insisted, she focuses on the “complexity of reality” and stresses that at times a journalist must “put aside political and theoretical discussions… return to the field and the collect words of anonymous individuals who live different situations...” She indicated that language should not represent a barrier to a journalist’s work on the ground, that the most important messages and meanings can be understood without words. Journalist Yassin Temlali disagreed, observing that the failure of European correspondents in the Maghreb to speak the language of the country in which they are reporting prevents comprehension of important details and information, and by extension the very complexity of reality he or she ideally strives to expose.
Plurality in the media: perspectives and sources of information
Late in the morning, Rachida Ennaifer recalled the question posed at the outset of the discussion: different views? Yes, she repeated firmly, different views. The former president of the Tunisian Journalists Association explained that the existence of different views allows space for the rejection of clichés and stereotypes, such as the conventional image of Tunisia as a model of democracy. Freelance reporter Florence Beaugé—who covered Tunisia for Le Monde and was expelled from the country in 2009–recalled that before the revolution, her editors and more generally the political power in France had no interest in topics that contradicted the Tunisian “economic miracle,” an illusion maintained by statistics manufactured by the Ben Ali regime (numbers which, Beaugé noted, even the World Bank based its reports on). Remembering the newspaper’s constant refusal to publish anything related to human rights, Beaugé related how she would insist at the time that “Everything in Tunisia is related to human rights.”
Since the revolution, recounted professor Larbi Chouikha, the media landscape has opened up, now with some 200 publications, 35 radio stations, and a dozen television networks. Still, the situation of journalists remains precarious and the legal frameworks protecting freedom of expression and right of access to information ambiguous. Graver yet, Chouikha continued, the mentality has not changed, and journalists still operate within a landscape where media, big business, and politics mingle. Unless there is a will to break from old practices and especially to separate financing and editorial boards, the changes that have been adopted since 2011 will not be enough to stay the course, Chouikha argued.
A diverse press reflects a variety of mediums (written, audiovisual, electronic), formats (news briefs, analyses, investigative reports and research), and perspectives (mainstream and alternative outlets). In this vein, participants commented on European, francophone in particular, press coverage of North Africa. Said Djaffar, Editorial Director for Al Huffington Post Maghreb-Algeria, described francophone media’s relative disinterest in Algeria owing to the “absence of the spectacular,” in contrast with, for instance, the so-called Tunisian exception. Djaffar characterized an undiscerning press, the abhorrent reproduction of words, foreign correspondents handicapped by their inability to speak Arabic. He concluded amidst laughter that “French media’s narrative about Algeria is in need of an update.” For his part, former El País Maghreb correspondent Ignacio Cembrero characterized an “impoverished coverage” of the Maghreb in Spanish media, whereas it was once a reference for news about North Africa, particularly about Morocco. Patrizia Mancini, contributor for the Italian online journal Tunisia in Red, painted a similar portrait of mainstream Italian media, illustrating her point with the example of an article which appeared in La Stampa in January. The publication of In the mountains of Tunisia, former youth of the revolution dream of the Caliphate, a construed and misleading account of the aftermath of the revolution, moved a group of journalists, researchers, and others to address the online journal invoking their right to reply. When their request was denied, they authored an open letter compelling public opinion to reject biased narratives and generalizations about Tunisia and the Arab world.
But how, it was asked, can the “North” be expected to produce in-depth and critical accounts of happenings in the “South” if the latter shows little interest in the current events of neighboring Maghreb countries? Temlali asserted the importance of southern Mediterranean countries’ views of one another, calling for the need to develop an “internal diversity in which Egyptians can write about Tunisia and Tunisians about Egypt, Tunisians and Algerians and so on…” Former journalist Lotfi Madani reiterated the need for such exchange; he cited as an example the aftermath of last year’s attacks in Tunisia, when the solidarity movement which emerged in Algeria was neither represented nor reflected in Algerian press coverage of Tunisia. There were few Algerian journalists on the streets, he continued, in spite of relatively positive Tunisia-Algeria relations throughout history and in spite of the capacity of Maghreb journalists to visit other Maghreb countries and present more nuanced accounts of current events. Yasmine Kacha, Manager of the Reporters Without Borders North Africa office, wondered aloud at the apparent inability until now to “occupy the space between us,” to “create a network in the region.”
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