One year after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the press freedom industry the world over is tacking stock of what has been achieved.
Early during the uprising we brought together our affiliates at a gathering we called “Winds of Change – setting the agenda for media reforms”. Representatives of our unions were then full of optimism and believed that their time has come to push for real radical reforms and opened the widest discussion on subjects as diverse as the safety of journalists, press freedom and political pressure on media, reforming media laws, the role of unions in the public debate on democratisation and reform, censorship, freedom of information protection of sources, public interest, self-regulation/press councils, ethical media, role of investigative journalism.
Armed with a clear plan of action and dozens of recommendations, they returned home eager to be at the forefront of the struggle for civil liberties, individual freedoms and democracy and to transform their media landscape by fighting to reinforce the values of journalism, workers’ rights, democracy and equality.
In Tunisia, although the naked repression meted out daily by the police thugs of Ben Ali has almost disappeared, the climate and state of media has not radically changed to reach the level of total press freedom that the new government has been trumpeting.
The infamous information ministry did indeed disappear from the structure of the interim government, and blogger Slim Amamou was released from prison to be appointed Secretary of State for youth and sport. But journalists continued to be often violently assaulted by security forces while covering demonstrations. Attacks by politicians using journalists as scapegoats for the country's woes has now made journalists the target of Salafist gangs who often attack journalists and threaten to burn down media, as in the case of TV station Nessma.
Private media frequently dismiss scores of journalists while these vicious employers continue to take advantage of the largesse of the new government through grants, subsidies and sale of advertising. The new politicians, led by the Islamist An Nahda, have shown no hurry in reforming the state media into a public service media. Worse still, they are refusing to loosen their grip as they made their own appointments to head public media, including three editors in chief, many of whom had links with the former Ben Ali regime.
Regarding Egypt there is no doubt that a page of history was turned on 11 February last year when President Hosni Mubarak gave up power after 18 days of bloody crackdown. Eleven months later, things are still up in the air with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces taking over the running the country and not keeping to many of its promises. They even went further in using the same old methods of censorship and intimidation, stating they would “tolerate no insults directed against it” and started dragging numerous journalists in front of military tribunals.
A more violent crackdown was still to come with threats last September by the Supreme council to use emergency laws against all journalists who “threaten social peace”, the checking up of the licences of 16 satellite TV stations, the storming of the offices of Al-Hurra and Channel January 25 TV, and the violent attacks against journalists in November in the streets around Tahrir Square where more than 40 instances of assaults and arrests of journalists by the security forces were recorded.
One year on it seems as if the Arab spring has steadily turned into a nuclear winter.