Journalists of state-owned newspaper La Presse elected the members of their editorial board on Friday, January 13th, in a reversal of the highly controversial decision of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to directly nominate the editor-in-chief on Saturday January 7th.
The election, which was observed by a legal trustee and a representative from the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), produced the same result as Jebali’s nomination: Mongi El Gharbi as editor-in-chief. Lassaâd Ben Ahmed was elected as coeditor-in-chief and Sofiene Ben Farhat, Rafik Herguem, Olfa Belhassine, Raouf Seddik, and Nizar Hajbi as members of the editorial board.
“We don’t have anything against the people appointed by the government. We objected to the government’s intervention in choosing the editor-in-chief. The government has the prerogative of appointing the management but never the editorial board,” said Arbi Chouikha, a Tunisian journalist, activist, and member of the Independent Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC), a revolutionary committee who helped organize the internal elections.
Many people criticized the fact that La Presse journalists elected the same person appointed by the government, especially since in the past Gharbi wrote an article praising the former deposed President Zine El Abeddine Ben Ali urging people to vote for him in a past sham election.
“90 % of Tunisian journalists under the previous regime were obliged to write such articles,” said Chouikha.
According to a former official in the Agence Tunisienne de Communication Exterieure (ATCE, the now abolished propaganda agency) that asked to stay anonymous, the media sector under the previous regime was fully controlled by the President from his Carthage palace. Abd El Waheb Abdullah, a counselor of Ben Ali, Minister of Information under Bourguiba (Tunisia’s first president), and a teacher at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI), was the apparent head of Ben Ali’s propaganda machine. Abdullah threatened journalists and forced them to write articles to polish the image of Ben Ali and his relatives.
“All the journalists were under pressure when writing those articles,” stated Olfa Belhassine who also added that Gharbi, the newly elected editor-in-chief, admitted having written pro-Ben Ali articles but also affirmed that he rose up against the regime like all Tunisians and had promised to break with all the old practices.
“I have worked with him before. I know that he is very professional and also a democratic leader that respects different points of view,” said Belhassine.
The journalists of La Presse also fixed a procedure for choosing future editorial boards and will now elect a new editor-in-chief every two years. The rest of the public media outlets are still working with the INRIC on setting the criteria of the candidacy of the editor-in-chief.