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In a changed Tunisia, dismay over an unchanged media

On television and in the pages of Realites, an independent French-language newsmagazine that he edits, Zyed Krichen has emerged as one of the most vocal champions of the revolution that ousted Tunisia’s longtime dictator and ignited the historic

On television and in the pages of Realites, an independent French-language newsmagazine that he edits, Zyed Krichen has emerged as one of the most vocal champions of the revolution that ousted Tunisia’s longtime dictator and ignited the historic protests in the Middle East.

On blogs and Facebook pages, however, Mr. Krichen is under fire for what he didn’t say. For years, some argue, Krichen remained silent while his magazine published uncritical, sometimes fawning stories about the dictatorship — including a particularly upbeat profile of a widely reviled presidential nephew in the early days of the uprising.

Four months after the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, Tunisia’s revolution remains far from complete, a fact that’s embodied in an awkward feature of the new Tunisia: Nearly all of the editors and media personalities who worked under the old regime remain in their posts.

And to the young and increasingly impatient supporters of the Tunisian revolution, that is a situation that shows how little has actual changed here since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia Jan. 14.

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“No one of a different voice is running any media outlet since the revolution,” said Riadh Ferjani, a professor of communication at the University of Tunis-Manouba. “All the public and private media are being led by people who were OK with the Ben Ali regime. Even if it’s not the same individuals, they all belong to the same system.”

Krichen, a journalist for 30 years, said he had to make compromises to ensure the survival of the magazine. Under Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship, websites and books critical of the reginme were banned; self-censorship was a matter of survival for journalists and broadcasters.

“I chose to work in this country, and therefore I accepted to work for a magazine that ran apologist stories in favor of the regime,” the editor said in an interview at his magazine’s offices, inside a whitewashed colonial-style building in Tunis.

Defending Ben Ali regime

In December, days after an impoverished young Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire after an altercation with a police officer in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, Krichen wrote a two-page column in which he expressed sorrow for the incident and criticized state media for failing to cover it.

But he absolved Ben Ali’s regime of blame in the episode — which mushroomed into the nationwide protests that forced Ben Ali’s resignation.

“President Ben Ali has repeatedly shown, since his accession to the presidency, his deep concern for all of Tunisia’s children, especially those in poverty or misfortune,” Krichen wrote in the Dec. 30, 2010, editions.

In the same edition the magazine also heaped praise on Imed Trabelsi, a construction magnate and Ben Ali’s nephew, who was then mayor of La Goulette, a booming suburb of the capital. Featuring a large picture of its smiling subject, the story gushed: “With a young, dynamic and consistent team led by Mr. Imed Trabelsi, you can’t help but be innovative — creative thinkers whose purpose is none other than the interests of the city and its residents.”

Trabelsi, however, was better known to Tunisians as a dissolute businessman who in 2006 reportedly stole a yacht from a prominent French banker. The theft “came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor” outside Tunis, a US diplomat in Tunis wrote in a secret June 2008 cable that was obtained by WikiLeaks. (The incident caused a diplomatic kerfuffle with France and the yacht was quickly returned.)

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Krichen said that the decision to print the article lay with the publisher, and he defended his judgment.

“If he refused to print it, I don’t know what risks he would have run, and I wouldn’t have accepted them in his place,” Krichen said. “He thought he didn’t have much choice.”

The reaction online was scathing — and it got worse for Krichen after he began appearing on television as a political commentator following Ben Ali’s resignation. He wrote a lengthy article defending himself on a French-language website, pointing out that he didn’t explicitly endorse Ben Ali’s party during the 2004 and 2008 elections and that in a three-decade career he never earned any official prizes or recognition from the regime.

Many Tunisians nevertheless felt that Krichen couldn’t cast himself credibly as on the side of the revolutionaries.

“Simply put: was this article … truly published by Realites or was it a fake? And were you at the time the editor-in-chief or not?” a commenter named “tunisien” wrote on one website March 25. “If the answer to both questions is yes, how do you square that with the critical and uncompromising attitude that you claim you’ve always had toward the former regime?”

Other veteran media figures have also come in for derision.

A popular YouTube video showed Nabil Karoui, the CEO of Nessma, a major private television station, appearing on air before the revolution and calling Ben Ali “our father, the man who hates injustice.” It then cuts to a clip of an emotional Karoui after the revolution, saying, “We managed to kick out a dictator and the mafia around him, whom we’ve all been tortured by.”

What that means is that those who support change in the country are still looking for media figures who represent them.

The revolutionaries “don’t pay attention to the old media. They don’t trust them,” said Zied El Heni, who took over as editor of La Presse, a government-run French-language daily, after staff members forced their long-serving editor to resign in January.