Training Journalists in a Former Dictatorship, Part 1: Kouichi Shirayanagi talks about Tunisia’s pre- and post-revolution media landscape

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All photos have been taken, with permission, from Shirayanagi’s personal collection.

In 2009, Kouichi Shirayanagi, an American who had developed an interest in Tunisia while working as a legislative fellow for the Washington D.C.-based House Committee on Foreign Affairs, began building his knowledge of Tunisia as an Arabic-language student at the Bourgiba Institute of Living Languages in Tunis. After the Tunisian revolution, which unseated former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Shirayanagi returned to the country to work alongside Tunisians as part of Tunisia-Live.net, the country’s first post revolution English-language news site. “Unsatisfied,” in his words, with his writing and reporting skills, Shirayanagi plans to begin attending the Missouri School of Journalism’s graduate program in August. On a visit to the School this month and in subsequent email correspondence, Shirayanagi spoke to me about Tunisia’s media landscape, media reform in the former dictatorship and the country’s current issues.

What’s your connection to Tunisia?

I lived in Tunis and studied Arabic in Tunisia before the revolution. From my work on Capitol Hill, I gained a basic understanding of the demographics, economies and geographies of different Arabic speaking countries. Tunisia stood out as a country with a population that is mostly educated, doesn’t have oil and isn’t geostrategically important to any superpower.

I thought that Tunisia was the most likely country to change in the future. I knew the Arab countries could not all stay dictatorships forever, and if any country changed first, I thought it would be Tunisia. I read Jared Cohen’s book Children of Jihad while I was on the Hill, and I was inspired to go to an Arabic-speaking country afterward and study Arabic to talk to people in the growing youth demographic. Many Arabic speaking countries have a large young adult population.

I spent six months learning Arabic and talking to young people every day. In class I would do Arabic lessons, but after ending at one o’clock, I would talk to as many young people as I could. I loved taking public transportation, going to every single neighborhood I could, and I would just talk to young people. I wanted to see what young people were thinking and would practice my Arabic. I wanted to get to know other young people and listen to them tell me about their life, what they were thinking, and their world views.

How did you come to Tunisia-Live?

I went back to Tunisia after the revolution. One of the young Tunisians I met was a former Fulbright Scholar. I kept in touch with her throughout the three weeks of the revolution. One of her memorable posts on Facebook was about her experience being harassed by Ben Ali’s police after she did translation work for a Tunisian opposition lawyer named Mohammed Abbou. She never told me about that experience before the revolution. She told me about how she was going to work for Tunisia Live and I really wanted to work with a person like her.

The revolution inspired a group of young Tunisians to do real journalism but they had all grown up in a society where real journalism was basically illegal. The only journalism schools in Tunisia were basically teaching propaganda creation for the old regime. English is the third or fourth language of many Tunisians (the first and second usually being Arabic and French). At the same time they had developed a fixing service to help foreign English language correspondents in Arabic interpretation. One of the founders of Tunisia Live did an interview with David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times on January 14th (the day Ben Ali left) and his relationship with David Kirkpatrick started a fixing service with the New York Times.

There are many English language Middle East correspondents who don’t speak Arabic or French, so the young Tunisians did the translation for them and Tunisia Live got paid for it. But it was not enough for the young Tunisians to just work with reporters and not learn regularly to write themselves. So that’s where the website comes from. It comes from the need in Tunisia to build a set of journalism skills with a group of people who are really ambitious, really inspired and never had the opportunity to do journalism before.

What type of media landscape were you dealing with?

Before the revolution, the Ben Ali regime had a media monitoring operation called the ATCE (Agence Tunisienne de Communication Extérieure). They had people embedded in every publication watching what people wrote. (In La Presse, the country’s main French-language newspaper,) … there had to be a whole page of stories of Ben Ali’s great accomplishments every day, and every piece of news depicted Tunisia in the most positive light. There could be no stories about poverty, unless Ben Ali was alleviating poverty, there could be no story about the marginalization of people living in the interior regions (which are generally less developed than the coastal regions). There could be no story about Tunisian emigrants, or Tunisians who opposed Ben Ali. There was no mention of Islamists or the Ennahda party, Ben Ali’s largest opposition group at all in the media except to say that there are terrorists who wanted to destroy the country. The pre-revolution media was like a regime messaging service to the people, and no one believed anything reported in the media.

The regime would communicate to the people through the media, and you’d see people reading newspapers to get a general idea of what was going on but people were transmitting a lot of information through social media. Everybody knew that the regime was full of itself and that the way of understanding information was by gathering it yourself and going on social media.

Didn’t Ben Ali call for increased media criticism?

Ben Ali’s former party had a lot of people who were trained in France, so they knew what the West wanted to hear. In their communications to a foreign audience who did not understand the country, they would always say, “We’re incrementally working towards a democracy.” When he first took over the government from the first President, Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali was only supposed to be an interim president who was supposed to reform the Tunisian economy and bring Tunisia to a point where it would be a democracy. In 2005 Ben Ali brought the United Nations to have their conference on information society in Tunis. He would make speeches (about making Tunisia a democracy), but when looking at his country from the ground, he was really oppressive. (Regime officials) were deporting foreign journalists, arresting people, they were denying visas to foreign journalists who were critical, they deported journalists, they beat up journalists, they put journalists in prison for long periods of time, they even killed a journalist! I think they killed more than one. Ben Ali said that (he was moving toward a democracy) and yet he maintained ATCE, he maintained very tight control of the media, and he maintained very strict (lack of) opposition to him. No critical stories about the country, no talking about issues that could make anyone take a second look at Tunisia. He had a strong PR/Propaganda machine. He hired Washington Media Group, an influential PR firm to find journalists and think tank writers to go on junkets to Tunisia where they were fed misinformation which was reported to a Western audience that the regime championed as truth. They would get influential writers like Christopher Hitchens to write about how many ways Tunisians were lucky during the Ben Ali regime (Shirayanagi referenced this piece: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/07/hitchens200707).

So outsiders really had no idea. You had to look hard to find writing about the true nature of the country.

And so you’re starting with a lot of misinformation. When you’re creating a new media, you find yourself constantly saying, “Hey, these old people really got it wrong.” So the urgency of getting it right after the revolution was not just that we want to get it right now and we’re dealing with it right now. We’re also dealing with the past and how we have to correct all these wrongs. We were correcting 23 years of misinformation created by the Ben Ali regime.

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