Freedom of the press on the long road to democracy
Italian-Tunisian journalist tackles key role of media in country’s rebirth amid dictatorship and terrorism
Information is the most effective bullet: this could be summarized as the speech of Leila Ben Salah, an Italian-Tunisian professional journalist who edits the column “The Jasmines of the Maghreb” for Radio Bullets. The subject of the column is news from North Africa and normally neglected by the agenda setting of the Italian media.
Leila Ben Salah’s speech moves on the thread of freedom of the press, showing how important it is to communicate, to publicly address even and especially difficult topics related to dark periods in a country’s history. That’s what happened in Tunisia, and that’s what she told the packed audience at the Forum of Mediterranean Women Journalists, speaking about the Truth and Dignity Instance project, a commission that collected and examined more than 62,000 testimonies of physical and psychological torture on political prisoners held in Tunisian jails from 1955 to 2013. The same committee held public hearings, focusing on atrocities carried out under the Ben Ali regime, the most recent dictatorship in Tunisia swept away by the revolutionary wave of the Arab Spring. Chilling stories, those reported by those who experienced the horror firsthand or felt the pain of losing a family member, compounded by the harassment and mockery of the authorities: “The bride of a martyr of the revolution also spoke,” Ben Salah reports, “who died under torture in October 1991. She and her mother-in-law searched for him everywhere, in hospitals, prisons, police stations, they searched for him for years. A years-long ordeal, indeed, with the added hint of sarcasm from the police who kept calling them to the barracks and interrogating them, asking where Jamel was hiding They knew perfectly well that he was dead by now, however, they teased them by asking them to reveal the hiding place to them.”
This and other testimonies were captured on live national television-a decisive step after years of obscurantism. In reaction to dictatorial censorship, television is no longer gagged; rather, it becomes a megaphone to publicize the aberrations that have been carried out, to confront the ghosts of the past: not an easy operation, the journalist points out, for an Arab country; “and it is very important that we talk about it,” the journalist says, “(…) to make people understand how much the country is walking towards democracy, (…) freedom of the press is already a very important piece.
Information as a tool for liberation, then, but also as a preventive weapon. Leila Ben Salah talks about Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni, a 2011 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and the creator of a project aimed at young imprisoned compatriots: a collection of books destined for prison libraries. The purpose of the initiative is to spread culture in one of the environments considered “hunting grounds” for Isis recruiters. Broadening young people’s horizons, showing them that an alternative way is at hand, is one way to confront terrorism, a scourge that has Tunisia as one of the major countries exporting foreign fighters.