Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisian President Ben Ali Encourages Tunisian Press to Be "More Critical"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisian President Ben Ali Encourages Tunisian Press to Be "More Critical"

Article excerpt

Tunisian President Ben Ali Encourages Tunisian Press To Be "More Critical"

Mohammad Dalbah is a Washington-based Arab journalist. He writes often on Tunisian affairs.

The May 4 edition of the evening news broadcast on Tunisian national television was unusual. Not only was it much longer than the regular 25-minute format, but it also contained large excerpts of a meeting held the day before between Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and most of the country's private newspaper publishers. The unhappiness of the president about the state of the press could not be expressed in clearer terms. "In Tunisia," he said, "we have achieved considerable progress in all fields. Our country is today worthy of high-level news media. However, the current level of the media is below our expectations."

President Ben Ali was alluding to the progress his country was able to achieve in the last decade or so. Indicators show that this small Maghrebi nation was able, despite its limited resources, to establish itself as a beacon country in the region. Per capita income, which has nearly tripled since 1986, is today the highest in North Africa, with the exception of oil-producing Libya.

Income has increased to the point where only about 6 percent of the population falls below the poverty line. More than 99 percent of the population attends or has attended school, and female students constitute an even half of the student population.

Three-quarters of the Tunisian population is today considered middle-class. And the emergence of middle-class values has been accompanied by a higher standard of living and higher expectations of the media.

Reflecting a widespread disappointment over the performance of the press in the country, President Ben Ali told newspaper publishers, "Every morning, I find on my desk all the newspapers. I go through them all, although it would suffice just to read one of them. The same pictures, the same articles, the same information...I have to say, frankly, that I find virtually nothing to read anymore."

Newspaper publishers and heads of press associations present at the meeting offered many explanations for this state of affairs. They cited shortcomings in the training of reporters, the distribution by the state of public advertising, and the financing of newspapers among the contributing causes.

One possible factor which the Tunisian president was less inclined to accept was that of "self-censorship," meaning the fear of printing something that will result in problems with the authorities. …

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