It was not until 4am that the name-by-name gruelling reading of each of the vote bulletins came to an end -- 454 voters had to chose nine among the 40 candidates. A worn out president staggered to the rostrum to read in a solemn voice the results of the election of a new board for the Tunisian union of journalists (SNJT). The poor man has been on his feet since 10 in the morning, but he had to compose himself to rise to the occasion. He had to, as every gesture in revolutionary Tunisia carries an enormous significance.
The congress lasted a day and a half with only a fraction dedicated to its main theme of “press freedom as essential guarantee to the transition to democracy”. It was the second congress of Tunisian journalists since they decided to ditch their old association three years ago and replaced it with a union. It also happen to take place only months after a mass uprising brought the country’s dictatorship down and was still brewing with revolutionary fervour.
Tunisian media which has been one of the main pillars used by the dictator’s clan to control the hearts and minds is in meltdown. Everything is up for grab – the state press and broadcasting media, its news agency, even the main private newspapers and magazines. Journalists were not only geared up to defend their livelihoods but also want to be at the forefront of the refounding of their media. In such circumstances, one would expect that the first gathering post-revolution of the journalists would attempt a high-level debate of a root-and-branch shake up of their profession. Unfortunately, the outgoing leadership did not present much, apart from a thin moral report accounting for three years of work and a financial report, both distributed as the congress opened. A hastily convened commission drafted a spur-of-the-moment set of recommendations that passed for a working programme and were passed on the nod.
The only thing that mattered was the election. In fact the only documents that were thrust in hands, stuck on walls and piled on tables were elections addresses and lists. Two main lists locked horns – the fourth estate and the professional lists. From the time the president opened debates, almost every speech was an election address. A few dealt with the atrocious conditions in some work places. Some were about cases of journalists who suffered at the hands of the dictatorship. Others were from young journalists who were the most vocal in describing their attempt to survive the harsh environment in their workplace but directed their bile against older journalists.
On the whole, the mood was not for a comradely or a savvy debate to discuss building the union or uniting behind clear campaigns. It suddenly swung into charged incriminations, calling for account those who cheered or worked for the regime and demanding their heads on a plate. For a moment congress turned mutinous with rabble-rousers taking to the podium to incite against named individual which were surrounded and, for a short moment, in danger of being tarred and feathered. In the end, they got away with a reprimand when congress agreed to set a black list of the “collaborators”.
In hindsight after 22 years of coercion, humiliation and oppression, it would have been unimaginable that Tunisian journalists would just turn the page and quietly get on with building their future. They needed to lance that boil they endured for so many years and make their own revolution. In the end, they roared slogans, sang revolutionary songs, reviving once again the heydays of the uprising then they calmed down, queued up very neatly and voted.