Tunisia struggles to reconcile national security and media freedom
TUNIS - Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, faces a dilemma as it struggles to reconcile national security and media freedom in a country facing a rise in jihadist unrest.
The debate has been raging for weeks in Tunisia, where parliament in January 2014 ratified a new constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression after decades of authoritarian and oppressive rule.
"Terrorism and freedom of the press are new to Tunisia," said Mohamed Fehri Chelbi, a professor at IPSI, a university that trains journalists.
As a result, he said, when violence breaks out the media and the government frequently issue conflicting and confusing reports.
The latest example was on May 25 when gunfire was heard from Bouchoucha army barracks in Tunis, near parliament and the Bardo National Museum where jihadist gunmen killed 21 foreign tourists and a policeman in March.
The media broke the news, with reports of a "terrorist attack".
Some said the shooting was the result of clashes between troops inside the barracks and armed men in an adjacent neighbourhood, while others claimed that women were among the assailants.
Officials quickly put an end to the cacophony of information saying that a soldier who "had family and psychological problems" seized a gun and killed eight comrades before being shot dead.
The interior ministry insisted the rampage was not linked to "terrorism".
The multitude of conflicting reports from the media sparked anger among social network users, with one tweeting: "URGENT: journalists are terrorising the population".
Defence ministry spokesman Belhassen Oueslati criticised the media for its "haste" in publishing "erroneous information and contradictory reports... that triggered public concern".
Media outlets hit back, saying they were only doing their job.
They also criticised the authorities for having issued conflicting casualty tolls and contradictory information about the March 18 museum attack.
"Why are we being insulted and discredited," wrote the news website Business News, which had claimed that women were among assailants on Bouchoucha barracks before correcting its report.
"We are only doing our job by reporting the news and quoting official or reliable sources," it said in an opinion piece.
Tunisia's media has been under scrutiny ever since the end of the 2011 revolution that toppled autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose regime muzzled the press.
Authorities have repeatedly accused the media of "blunders" while journalists have charged that the administration lacks transparency.
In 2013, the media came under heavy criticism after they published pictures of the bodies of soldiers killed in an ambush by jihadists.
- Propaganda -
During a seminar organised by the interior ministry to discuss "the media and terrorism", officials cautioned journalists against badgering the families of victims.
"Press freedom should not become a pretext" to hound families of soldiers and the police, interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said at the seminar.
Aroui also said a newspaper which had "suggested that terrorists are winning" against the security forces could serve as "propaganda for terrorism".
Some security officials, as well as police unions, have also urged journalists ensure they place "the national interest before any scoop".
But the Tunis Centre for Press Freedom, a non-governmental organisation, warned that such calls can be dangerous because journalists are not supposed to reflect government views.
"A journalist has the right to promote values such as the battle against terrorism... but it is not his job to wage war by proxy... or to be an instrument of government institutions," said Walid Mejri, a journalist with the weekly Akher Khabar.
Fahem Boukaddous, a member of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, said the media should work to be more reliable to avoid pressure from authorities.
"The authorities could exploit mistakes committed by journalists to put pressure on the media and justify the need to implement legislation that could prove dangerous for the press," he said.
The government submitted to parliament this year a draft anti-terrorism law and a security bill which have sparked concern that they could undermine freedom of information.