Can Tunisia’s national news agency be more than a government mouthpiece?

The Sidi Bouzid government building. Photo by Layli Foroudi.

On December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit-seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the governor’s building in Sidi Bouzid. This act of protest sparked an uprising in Tunisia, then a series of revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

One reporter, Chawki Ghanmi, walked downstairs to see what was happening. He did not have far to travel. His office—the local bureau for the state news agency, TAP—was located on the first floor of the same pale yellow building, flanked with palm trees, that Bouazizi was protesting against. 

Ghanmi didn’t intend to report on the event. “It wasn’t a story, it was like a car accident,” he says of the self-immolation. “I didn’t want to see the body.” After seeing the flames, he went back inside to get a fire extinguisher. 

At the time, Ghanmi was not supposed to report at all on dissent and discontent. His task, as a reporter, was to assist the government in quelling it. TAP is short for Tunis Afrique Presse; it also sounds like the French word for “type up.” The agency was created in 1961 by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, as a propaganda tool after the country’s independence from France. It was inherited by Zine el Abidine Ben Ali when he took power in a bloodless coup in 1986 and used to polish his image, and that of his regime and family members, until he was ousted in 2011. 

Every dispatch filed by a reporter went through a team of “validators,” then the head of the desk and the editor in chief—a system of “fact checking” that served to censor. “The language was very limited, they had 600-1000 words and formulas that they should use,” says Enrique Klaus, media scholar at the University of Galatasaray. “The word protester became troublemaker. The head of the desk re-reads and corrects the text to include the vocabulary of the regime.” 

At the top of the hierarchy was Abdelwahab Abdallah, an advisor to Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and head of the now defunct Agency for External Communication, known by the acronym ATCE, which was tasked with promoting Tunisia’s image abroad. “This man was our Goebbels,” says Sihem Ben Sedrine, president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, tasked with investigating crimes committed under dictatorship. “It had money, it controlled how people spoke, how they wrote their reports.” 

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Ghanmi, a literature graduate, had been happy to work at the TAP because it offered him a job for life. To his mind, he carried out his work as a journalist and what happened further up the line was not his problem. His most detailed report in the days leading up to Ben Ali’s departure was a two-page article about a regional development minister announcing more investment in Sidi Bouzid. The protests that had sprung up in the wake of Bouazizi’s actions got a brief mention, though he did not go to the scene. “We couldn’t,” he explained, because “the police would consider us like a protester and the protesters would consider us like the police.” There was also an unspoken danger that he’d be reported to the authorities himself. 

Now, nine years after the revolution, Ghanmi is free to pursue stories in the public interest. He spends his time on the ground, and files copy from wherever the story is, using his knee as a mousepad. “I can speak with people and people can speak. Before we had dispatches on ‘look what we’ve done,’ now we have dispatches on problems we are facing.” 

 

For the TAP, the transition from government mouthpiece to functioning news agency is neither easy nor complete. “A despot,” wrote Ryszard Kapuscinski, “may go away but no dictatorship comes to a complete end with his departure.” The day after Ben Ali fled the country, in January 2011, a journalist came into the newsroom early and published a report on the speech the deposed dictator had given the night before. “It was like a eulogy—propaganda by a pro-regime journalist,” recalls Mounir Souissi, a TAP reporter. “Fifteen minutes later, the editor in chief came and said, ‘did you see this—it is a catastrophe!’ And he deleted the article.” 

The confusion continued into an editorial meeting held that month, where journalists proposed to create an independent editorial committee and an audit to investigate corruption in recruitments and promotions at the agency. This moment of reckoning for the TAP was tentative, and the editor was reluctant to keep minutes. The regional bureaus weren’t invited and even some of the Tunis desks were absent. Journalists who were present say that there was a “toxic” feeling between those who were close to the regime and those that wanted reform; a small group wore red arm bands to signal their discontent.

The most pro-regime journalists at the TAP made themselves scarce in the aftermath of the revolution, but in 2014, mirroring the return of old-regime figures to government with the election of Beji Caid Essebsi, the propagandists came back to work. Aymen Zammali, a 35-year-old political correspondent, says that the TAP has since reformed enough for him to work there, but he is frustrated by the culture. “The older generation work in the old way of just publishing press releases and reporting on ceremonies. They just come for their six-hour shift, they stay to earn their bread, and go home,” he says. “I want to be close to the information, have sources—we are not administrators, we are journalists.” 

Today, the TAP has around 110 working journalists and puts out 55 reports a day. These are sent to 35 subscribers which include all Tunisian media outlets, government ministries, and embassies. While praised for its accuracy, the agency is sluggish. It often reports  an event hours, or sometimes days, after it has happened. The news of President Beji Caid Essebsi’s hospitalization prior to his death appeared on the TAP wire four and a half hours after a local radio broke the news. Reuters, meanwhile, confirmed it and wrote a report in just over an hour. 

For now, the strategy for change is as slow as the news service itself: natural human decay. “In five to six years, we are going to see a big change, we are going to see the younger generation take control,” says Mahdi Jlassi, an executive committee member of the Journalist’s Union (SNJT). “There is still a problem about propaganda. Not everyone but the majority of [the older] generation is always looking to ally themselves with a party or organization.” Young journalists, he said, report on more pressing issues of statehood. 

Part of the problem, Jlassi says, is the “Mexican army” structure of the TAP: more generals than soldiers; more managers than journalists. This is a legacy of the old regime’s tactic of rewarding loyalty with promotions. Nothing has been done because redundancy packages are expensive and the administration prefers to preserve the peace. 

“Maybe we should have acted differently, maybe we should have made the most of the moment to have started something new,” says Olfa Habbouba, editor on the economy desk and one of those who wore a dissenting arm-band in 2011. “We didn’t want to do a violent reaction because they were our colleagues. Nothing happened, we continued like this.”

 

Up until December of last year, the government-nominated head of the TAP had always been someone from the old guard. “The nominations are political, there is a move to return to the concept of a state media and not a public media,” says Mohamed Yousfi, a radio journalist and SNJT committee member in charge of media freedom, who wrote an open letter last year calling on the Prime Minister Youssef Chahed change his government’s approach to the media and to think “in the interest of future generations, not the upcoming elections.” 

The most recent TAP appointment, though, last December, appeared to signal changes on the horizon. At age 68, Rachid Khechana is by no means of the younger generation, but he has journalistic and revolutionary credentials. He was an advocate for media freedom during the dictatorship; he has worked for international outlets, including Al Jazeera and LBC, and he founded a media training center. The SNJT, though they did not advocate for him specifically, saw his nomination as a result of the union’s pressure on the government to appoint an “honest and upright person who knows the Tunisian media,” says Jlassi. 

Not everyone agrees. Seven months after he moved into the peeling TAP building, a group of 30 journalists staged a two-hour sit-in in the entrance hall in protest of his leadership. One of these was Mounir Souissi, who used to consider Khechana a friend but now sees him as “a man of the government” because he has been asking desks to delete dispatches in deference to complaints from the Kasbah, the seat of government.

“[Khechana] contacted the economy desk to ask to delete a report about the increase in electricity prices,” says Souissi, who writes Facebook posts whenever he sees government interference in the media. “Mofdi Mseddi [a government communication advisor] had asked why we hadn’t published that the government were also going to help families in need—Khechana accused us of being against the government!” 

Khechana says that there are pressures from friends and from the government to publish press releases and that it is not a situation he feels comfortable in. But he says that the accusations of manipulation are unfounded and motivated by disciplinary action he has taken against employees for alleged absenteeism. 

He was contacted by the government about reports on two occasions, he says, and he intervened because he felt that they were unbalanced. “I think, with all modesty, that each time I intervene with my colleagues, given that I have more experience than them, my intervention is beneficial for the TAP and for them, too,” he said via Skype. 

But his job is not editorial. “The CEO is not the editor-in-chief, there needs to be a separation of the administration from the editorial,” says Yousfi. These editorial interventions are even more pressing as the electoral campaign kicks off in September and since Chahed, who has temporarily stepped down from his position as head of government, is running for president. 

Before announcing his candidacy, Chahed gave a 90-minute interview on the national TV channel, Wataniya 1, touching on subjects like his government’s performance over the last three years, his relationship with the deceased president, and his political ambitions. The SNJT called it “an early election campaign, using a public media.” 

One of Souissi’s recent Facebook posts, written like a dispatch from the depths of the TAP, reported two attempts by the administration to plant stories on  the wire: one was to announce a televised speech by Chahed, the second related to the arrest of another presidential candidate. 

On both occasions, the journalists on the politics desk rejected the requests. “There is resistance internally at the TAP, but there are [also] journalists who say yes,” says Yousfi. “The TAP is a national treasure—we need to do radical and audacious reforms so that it represents all Tunisians, of all cultures and political persuasions.”

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Layli Foroudi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. Her writing has been published in The Times of London and the Financial Times among others. Previously, she worked on Al Jazeera English's media analysis programme, The Listening Post.