Training Journalists in a Former Dictatorship, Part 2: Kouichi Shirayanagi discusses issues in training journalists, Tunisia Live’s importance and plans for the future

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

What were some difficulties in training Tunisian journalists?

A lot was based on peoples’ English ability. English writing is a skill that’s not taught well in Tunisia. (Many of the TunisiaLive journalists) had English teachers who were Tunisians who had gone abroad and come back, and even the English teachers in Tunisia didn’t have an excellent command of the written English language. That was the first barrier.

But if you work with someone every day, immerse them in writing good English, in learning journalistic skills, in being able to tell a story in an effective manner and you give them a format to do it, they will do it, and they will do it well.

It was the hardest work I’ve ever really done, but it was the most rewarding, and it was the most fun. The payoff of the work has been an incredible payoff, because the investment was in people, the return was in the creation of a few really good writers and journalists who will be real pioneers in opening up Tunisia to the English speaking world.

When we were hiring people we were looking for people who knew how to listen well and who could learn quickly, more than people who had any kind of prior training in journalism.

What about people who had been trained as journalists?

When Tunisians are in their last year of high school, they take a test called the BAC (Baccalaureate). If they scored well on the test, they would go into the sciences because (former president) Habib Bourguiba believed that scientific study was the way Tunisia was going to advance. And if a student scored low on the test, the student would go into the humanities because Habib Bourguiba had less respect for the humanities.

The people who you want to be journalists are not people who study journalism, because the lowest performers of the BAC are the ones who go to college and study journalism, they were actually studying regime propaganda creation anyway. There was no formal training that existed in the country to do real journalism. The people in the sciences have no reason to do journalism because they can get a better-paying job doing work related to science. So the pool of people who we had applying was not the greatest.

What impact has Tunisia-Live.net had?

Some of the people that I worked with are in great graduate programs in the States. The most successful girl who I worked with … actually just landed an Alfred Friendly Partners fellowship (her profile is at http://www.presspartners.org/asma-ghribi-tunisia/). (The fellowship pairs journalists in the developing world with in-newsroom training in the U.S.). She’s been placed in the Wall Street Journal, and I’m just so proud of her because she worked real hard to get to where she is now and really deserves to be where she is. Before (the Wall Street Journal) she had a column in Foreign Policy about Tunisia.

Tunisia Live had another really talented writer who got a job at the World Bank and now she’s at the British Council. Tunisia Live had one video producer who does the videos for the World Bank in Tunis. Everybody seems to be doing great things. There’s one woman who I spent a lot of time with … (who) just finished a George W. Bush Women’s Initiative Fellowship and I got to see her in California during her five week stay in the U.S.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going back to Tunisia to see the country for the first time since August 2012. I hope to freelance a few articles and I’m going to just enjoy being back and see a lot of old friends and make new ones. I want to improve my writing skills at the best journalism program in the United States, so I will be starting Mizzou J-School in early August.

What kind of media interest will you have from your contacts now as opposed to during the revolution?

Tunisia still has many news stories. It’s not just the sporadic violence that you see mentioned in the news when the US Embassy was attacked or opposition leaders get assassinated. The Tunisian National Constituent Assembly adopted a new constitution in January, and they have a new interim government that’s the product of a compromise between the major labor union and the ruling coalition led by the Islamist party, which is, almost impossible to do in every other Arab country because labor unions are generally very secular and leftist, almost communist, and Islamists are the total complete opposite. But they hatched up a compromise government to serve in an interim period. Most recently in a joint statement released from the White House a few days ago, was a promise by the interim prime minister to President Obama that the government would organize democratic elections in the country by the end of the year. So there will be a lot of news over the summer related to those elections if they go as scheduled.

In the past two years, there has been a lot of unrest in the less developed interior regions. The unrest was related to the fact that the central government appoints all the local governors. Now the people had one election to pick their national government but centralization still exists, they don’t pick their local government. There’s a lot of people in the provinces who blame that centralization of decision-making in Tunis on the marginalization of the interior regions. Even though the government says that they are taking care of people and they want to put more development out in the interior regions, there still really isn’t the rate of growth, the rate of investment (as compared to) what the coastal people are getting.

And so, there will be news about a lot of dissatisfied and disenchanted people who were really behind the revolution. The people who sacrificed the most, who suffered the most and are responsible for the revolution are the people who live in the interior regions, in the hinterland of the country. There is still widespread belief in the interior that the people on the coast still control the country. So that regionalism is still there, it’s very strong, it’s something to look at. And there are many stories to do about just that one issue: covering the places where the revolution really happened.

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