On October 14, journalists and women’s association members put their heads and pens together to draft a Declaration of Principles on Media Coverage and Journalistic Practices concerning Violence against Women. The same day, Alaa Chebbi is denounced by activists for “violating press laws” and “normalizing violence against women and little girls […] just to make a buzz.”

Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, journalists draft a Declaration of Principles

The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) headquarters occupies a large villa on a busy two-way, along which are scattered a number of civil society organizations. October 14 and 15, Association members, journalists, and professionals from public radio and television (though not a single representative from private broadcast agencies) sat amidst shelves full of ATFD literature and large sheets of paper crammed with reflections and notes. The assignment: to draft a Declaration of Principles in two days-time.

In the context of its project on Media Coverage and Journalism Practices around Violence against Women, the ATFD in collaboration with the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) organized a writer’s workshop to draft a “charter of good practices.” Drawing from international definitions of violence and texts governing ethical responsibilities and obligations of journalists and media outlets, participants examined how Tunisian media shapes public perception of violence against women, and how it can, and does, perpetuate it.

Acknowledging violence against women

Violence against women means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. – UN Declaration of the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993.

In 1993, when the UN published its Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the ATFD founded the Centre d’écoute et d’orientation des femmes victims de violence, a support center for female victims of violence. It was nearly two decades later in 2010 when a national survey provided statistical data concerning such victims and the types of violence endured. According to the study, 47.6% of individuals questioned indicated having experienced some form of violence (physical, psychological, sexual, or economic) during their lifetime. In 2014, Tunisia’s new constitution declared it a State obligation to “take action to eradicate violence against women” (Article 46), to which end the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is soon to present a draft law, reports the ATFD.

In the media: sensationalized and pernicious violence

Tunisian media has yet to turn a new page on old practices, and those present at the workshop evoked a number of examples which illustrate what the ATFD qualifies as “an alarming situation.” A study carried out in 2006 on the Violence against Women in Tunisian Written Press observed “a sort of negligence, the subject of sexist violence being normalized” and that readers were less inclined to find  “an article which discusses a serious socio-political phenomenon” than they were to find “a ‘piece’ which serves to better sell a media outlet.”

Along these lines, workshop facilitator and former member of the Independent High Authority for Audio-visual Communication (HAICA, resigned April 2015) Rachida Ennaifer pointed out the difference between serving the public interest—diffusing useful information, and appealing to public curiosity—sensationalizing information. “Is there a public interest in talking about whether a man has the right to hit his wife?” she asked rhetorically, alluding to a parliamentary deputy whose controversial remarks had put him in the media spotlight. In contrast to this sensationalized violence, Ennaifer describes “subtle” or “pernicious” violence of which the media itself is often a perpetrator: “The greatest pernicious violence is the absence of women on media platforms: after 8pm, we barely see any women on television.”

Other times, the media plays a direct role in perpetuating violence. Much as it is a journalist’s duty to respect the public’s right to useful and accurate information, it is also his/her obligation to prioritize the safety and security of witnesses and victims of sexist violence. The ATDF emphasizes “The right to dignity, the right to self-determination, and the right to privacy are essential for women who are going to testify, whereas they are humiliated by the violence they experience in a society which normalizes this violence.”

A case-in-point: normalizing violence against women on prime time television

On October 14, hours after journalists and association members sat together to draft the Declaration, Alaa Chebbi, host of the prime-time television show Andi ma nkollek, [I Have Something to Tell You] invited 17-year old Hajer onto the platform. Appearing next to her father and brother, the adolescent explains how she has been raped repeatedly since the age of 14 and is now eight-months pregnant by one of the rapists. Chebbi responds by accusing Hajer of not knowing how to defend herself, and advises her to apologize to her father and marry her rapist.

In a petition diffused on Facebook (“Marry your rapist, he says. We’ll see you in court, we respond”) activists called upon the delegate for the Protection of Children in Kairouan to “undertake all procedures and take all necessary measures to protect a child in danger.” Pointing out that it is not the first time that Chebbi has demonstrated the “normalization violence against women and little girls by blaming victims just to make a buzz,” they accuse him of “violating press laws and overriding his professional obligations” concerning the rights and protection of children as specified by the HAICA.

Summoned for a hearing before the HAICA, the television host presented himself, accompanied by his lawyer, this past Monday, though the Authority has postponed taking any action until a future date. In the meantime, the October 14 episode of Andi ma nkollek continues to play and replay on social media outlets.