Journalists in Tunisia have gone on strike for the first time since the country won its independence. They accuse the government of restricting freedom of speech. Is press freedom in danger after the revolution?
Several hundred journalists rallied outside their union's headquarters in Tunis earlier this week, chanting "Freedom for Tunisia's press." Union members from abroad as well as Tunisian opposition politicians also turned out to support the activists.
The nationwide strike dominates the talk on radio and television, and the banner of the national journalist union, SNJT, can be clearly seen on numerous websites.
Fear of returning to former practices
More than 90 percent of Tunisian journalists have joined the strike, according to the journalists' union.
The journalists accuse the government of trying to bring the media under its control.
"Press freedom is the most important achievement of the January 14 revolution and now it's at risk," said SNJT member Zied El Heni, who fears a return to the practices of the Ben Ali government.
Following the revolution that took place on January 14, 2011, the former propaganda media of the Ben Ali regime were supposed to become independent newspapers and broadcasters. But the government, under the leadership of the conservative Islamic Ennahda party voted into power a year ago, has replaced the heads of the broadcasters and former state-run press organizations in recent months.
The new directors, journalists argue, are friendly to the Ennahda party or to the former regime and intervene directly in programs and press coverage. Such intervention is illegal under Tunisia's new press laws, which were drafted shortly after the revolution.
New media laws
Heni accuses the government coalition of trying to control the media through the new directors. "They want to return to the days when there was only one way to report and only one way to think," he said.
In addition to replacing the new directors and applying the new laws, the journalists' union demands a clear separation between editorial staff and management.
At the Dar Assabah newspaper company, which publishes two of Tunisia's biggest papers, some of the journalists have been on strike for more than 50 days.
Journalists accuse Lotfi Touati, who was appointed by the government as the publisher's new director, of censoring their work. They point out that Touati worked in the notorious Ministry of the Interior in the Ben Ali regime and view him as the instigator of a coup against the leadership of the journalist union.
Earlier this month, seven journalists went on a hunger strike.
"We began the strike after we exhausted all other peaceful ways of protest," said Nizar Dridi, one of the activists. "We demand the resignation of the new director who meddles in editorial operations. We want to be able to work independently."
In their first round of negotiations, the Tunisian UGTT trade union federation and the government failed to reach an agreement.
130 attacks on journalists' freedom
Even if working conditions for journalists in Tunisia have improved since the revolution, the press continues to be confronted daily with various obstacles. Since the beginning of the year, the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders has registered 130 attacks on journalists' freedom, including censorship by their own directors and attacks by police.
That's why it's important for journalists to keep drawing attention to their situation, argues Belhassen Handous from Tunisia's Bureau of Organization. "The strike comes at the right time," he said.
Handous calls for the new media laws, which have been in limbo for nearly year, to be applied. "Even though the laws may need to be revised in some points, we need a legal framework because only that can guarantee freedom of opinion," he said.
The Tunisian government has meanwhile responded to the strike, saying in a statement that the hard-fought press laws should be applied immediately. The laws call for, among other things, the establishment of an independent regulator for audiovisual media.
In addition, journalists are no longer subject to the penal code. In the past, they were frequently convicted of violating public policy.