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A new watchdog for Tunisia\'s media

A group of media activists in Tunisia has launched a new website to critique the country\'s so-called independent media. It is an ironic twist that caught the eye of MENASSAT\'s Tunis correspondent.

Tunisia\'s independent media landscape has expanded in recent years, much of it attributable to the proliferation of online news sources.

As a result, Tunisian journalists are seeking the enhanced freedoms of online journalism because they have more space to express themselves, and because the government still has little tolerance for criticism in \"real world\" newspapers and audio-visual media.

So as not to allow any complacency in this expanding media environment, a group of media activists started a watchdog website last June to monitor how independent the independent media in Tunisia really are.

The organization\'s blog is called The Tunisian Observer, and among its critiques is an indictment of a report by the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, the lone union for independent reporters in Tunisia.

Watching the independents

The report issued by the Tunisian Journalists\' Syndicate has been at the heart of a controversy within the independent press.

\"The print and audio-visual media in Tunisia have still not overcome the one-vision approach, and despite the diversity of the independent press titles, it excuses the establishment and pushes propaganda,\" the Syndicate report stated.

The report added, \"Our media is still under stress because there are subjects which are taboo, a phenomenon which widens at times and shrinks at others, according to the political and security conditions in Tunisia.\"

The Syndicate went on to say that the current press environment has encouraged the profit motive over content, although it did praise a number of reports that it called \"decent and bold works.\"

The Tunisian Observer shot back and accused the report of being too oriented towards the mainstream media outlets, although it did agree with much of what the Syndicate said.

According to The Tunisian Observer, \"The Syndicate was really talking about the... official media, which operate under a different set of rules.\"

\"The issue,\" members of the Observer told MENASSAT, \"is that it is the media landscape itself, and not the reporters, force independent outlets to cover things from an official side or from an opposition side.\"

Such criticism has given The Tunisian Observer its own unique vantage point in Tunisia\'s media landscape.

A crisis of sourcing

The Observer has also focused on elements of reporting such as sourcing and the problems that come up for independent reporters when there is a dependence on official positions.

\"The proclivity to rely first on the official position... when covering specific news – either through government statements or by publishing articles expressing the official stand – without checking the source against other sources, explains why the news has so many similar pictures and descriptions of specific events,\" the Observer said in a recent critique.

Observer site administrators said that the same biased style can be seen in \"independent\" media that are aligned with the opposition.

\"Reports that focus on regime-critical sources often suffer from the same inaccuracies as those pro-government reports. False information is rife on both sides,\" the site administrators told MENASSAT.

\"Reporting simply as a reaction to the behavior of the independent newspapers aligned with the Tunisian regime is no way to promote responsible journalism.\"

Blog administrators admit that \"official\" media does not always represent the point of view of the governing party, but for the Tunisian public the problem stems from the fact that it is the tax payers who finance the official media.

Accordingly, the Observer admits that newspapers such as As-Sahafa (The Press) and La Presse, or the public TV stations, are often seen as biased only because the average viewer assumes that their public funding implies that they have to toe the party line.

A thankless job

The Tunisian Observer\'s staff are aware that they are perfect fodder for what is sure to be a storm of criticism from all sides of the journalistic divide.

But the site administrators told MENASSAT that they would not be deterred from critiquing whoever covers the news in a partisan way.

\"Critiquing things in this way positively affects the concept of independent reporting,\" they said.

\"We aren\'t here to disconnect from the past or even to create new media. We want to observe the media, question their sources and the way they present the news – particularly when the news is related to the political situation.\"

Marseille,07 22 2008
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