It is when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says about Nessma TV “they were not Ben Ali’s favorite TV station” that one realizes it does not take much to manipulate the US diplomacy.
Mrs. Hillary Clinton told the US Congress on the 10th of March 2011 that she was “going to Cairo and Tunis to speak directly with the people of Egypt and Tunisia” . Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Tunisia was accompanied with many controversies in the country but this is not unusual in the shaky diplomacy game of US foreign affairs. What is worth noting, however, is how the US diplomacy was outplayed against its own objectives.
Mrs. Clinton went on air on a local TV for a talk show with the said Tunisian people. Tunisia has two public channels and two private channels. Mrs. Clinton put aside the national TV and went on air on a private station called Nessma TV. It’s not known if the idea of the TV appearance was her initiative or something proposed to her, but in both cases the Secretary of State was set up in a situation that did not serve her purposes nor her country’s.
During her show on Nessma TV , Mrs. Hilary Clinton declared “I understand this was not Ben Ali’s favorite TV station and that’s a great honor” in an apparent effort to praise her hosting station for being a dissident in fighting Ben Ali’s regime and promoting free speech and free opinion [2b]. It’s not clear if the Secretary of State took chances in throwing that statement or if she was misinformed, but here’s some clarification on Nessma TV’s background.
Nessma TV was co-founded by Tarak Ben Ammar, a media guru, and the Karoui brothers, Nebil and Ghazi, the owners and managers of a communication agency . What Mrs. Clinton should have known is that Nessma produced and hammered on its airwaves a clip that praised Ben Ali and played a critical role in the propaganda campaign aiming to prepare the next Ben Ali’s endless anti-constitutional coups to seek further presidential mandates. Also, Nabil Karoui, Nessma’s CEO, featured himself on his own TV on many occasions and did not blink when he called Ben Ali “our father”, the “one who brings justice”, the “one who does want good for all of us”, the “the extraordinary one we are lucky to have and who did so much for Tunisia, and Nessma is one compelling evidence of those numerous accomplishments beating science fiction” [4b].
On another note, few days before Ben Ali’s ouster, while Ben Ali’s snipers were shooting live bullets into the heads and chests of unarmed and peaceful civilians, while the blood of those using only their voice to call for freedom and dignity was still fresh hot in the streets, Tarak Ben Ammar was lobbying from the other side of the Mediterranean, in Europe, raising the red flag against the protests and pretending that Ben Ali’s void would be filled by Iran’s Ahmadinejad, in an attempt to influence Europe to throw all its weight behind the support of Ben Ali against the brave people of Tunisia . No doubt his TV channel was not Ben Ali’s favorite.
Of course, the first minute Ben Ali was ousted, Nebil Karoui rushed again to his own station’s studio to praise the Tunisian revolution, to name Ben Ali a dictator, “the one who tortured us”, “the one who spoiled Tunisia with his mafia” and “the one muzzled our mouths”. Of course Mr. Karoui presented himself as a martyr, whose hands were tied, and threatened of prison, etc. and expressed his gratefulness and admiration to the Tunisian people, forgetting that he was saying about those who resisted with their modest means under Ben Ali to spread the word of truth that “they are serving us poison and lies”. Of course, also, Mr. Ben Ammar jumped on TV talk shows in France to praise the Tunisian revolution, to congratulate Tunisia for its freedom and new promising dawn, as if Ahmadinejad suddenly vanished, and to present himself as a supporter of the Tunisian revolution, throwing at French journalists and guests that Tunisians have no lessons to take from anyone, and defending his side to the extent of being disrespectful to his co-debaters and to the French audience, before flying to Tunis on the same evening to ride the revolution’s wave .
Well, Mrs. Clinton could think that these people, Ben Ammar and Karoui, had their hands tied in the time of Ben Ali and that they could show their kind heart only when they were freed from him. Indeed, they were freed…by those whom they betrayed till the last minute. To clear her doubts, Mrs. Clinton should also know that Nessma TV is a product of Ben Ali. Tarak Ben Ammar himself mentioned that Ben Ali asked him to meet with the Karoui brothers to setup Nessma. Ben Ali did the go-between to bring together the propaganda talent and the propaganda capital. Nessma is a product of Ben Ali. Whatever apparently free programs Nessma broadcasted was just the dust in the eyes to keep people away from what really matters, serving Ben Ali’s interests.
Actually, we don’t care about Nessma nor its founders. But we do care about Mrs. Clinton and the US diplomacy. Many Tunisians have a lot of respect to Mrs. Clinton and her professionalism, whether they agree with her views or not, and seeing the top US diplomat being instrumentalized by clowns of show biz in a time of most important matters is a pity.
Mrs. Clinton was expected to hold a press conference, for which hundreds of Tunisian journalists, regional journalists and international journalists lined up. Without stopping at the details of how draconian security measures irritated journalists and felt as an insult to their dignity and their profession, Mrs. Clinton suddenly changed her schedule and decided to hold the press conference at a different location promptly. Not surprisingly, the revised press conference wasn’t missed by Nessma, while hundreds of other journalists were setup at the original location. It’s not clear whether the schedule change was Mrs. Clinton initiative or if she was influenced to do so, but it’s worth noting that the current Tunisian interim government’s head of PR was the head of communication at Nessma TV . In any case, the press conference mess drained a lot of negative noise and was not a smart move if the objective of Mrs. Clinton’s visit was to re-polish the US diplomacy in Tunisia.
Well, it looks like Mrs. Clinton chose to meet with the Tunisian people behind intermediary screens. In Egypt, a group of the youth of Tahrir Square reportedly refused to meet with her. At least she tried. Maybe she thought in Tunisia hiding behind screens will be a better way to go to avoid the few people in the streets yelling slogans unfavorable to Mrs. Clinton.
The approach of Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tunisia looked more like a short stopover to pursue hidden agendas behind closed doors rather than an attempt to go and truly see the people of Tunisia as she announced to the Congress and forge the bond between the US diplomacy and the people of Tunisia. A transparent, honest dialogue, even if confrontational, the kind that breaks barriers and builds trust and respect, was the missing picture of Mrs. Clinton’s album in her visit to Tunisia.
This press conference episode is not the end of Hillary’s tribulation in her stumbling visit to Tunisia. Mrs. Clinton was expected to hold a talk show later on in the evening on TV, the one planned with Nessma. That looked like a catch-up plan to meet and discuss with the people of Tunisia. The US diplomacy’s representation in Tunisia did its homework. It reached out to people and youth who were active before and during the revolution, to be part of the guests of the talk show. But wait, it seems like Nessma’s crew had different plans for Mrs. Clinton. Indeed, young bloggers and journalists who were contacted by the US embassy were turned down by Nessma, which had its own ideas about the cast. The fact that Nessma dictated its rule on the US diplomacy stunned the world, not because it showed Mrs. Clinton as the pawn of Nessma, but because the potential participants excluded from the talk were influential activists who were perfectly legitimate to be part of the cast and represent the young Tunisian people who ousted Ben Ali and to engage in a dialogue with the head of the US diplomacy. This move again undermined Mrs. Clinton, as this fact triggered another massive negative noise in the public opinion and added to the accumulating bad perception of Mrs. Clinton’s visit.
So which cast did Nessma chose for the US Secretary of State ? We need to step back a minute to figure out.
Does Mrs. Clinton know that among Nessma shareholders and Mr. Tarek Ben Ammar’s dear partners, is Mr. Berlusconi ? Yes, the same guy who publicly turns women to mere pleasure objects while Mrs. Clinton talks about women rights and dignity on Nessma’s show. Through Mr. Berlusconi’s circle, Mr. Gaddafi is allegedly also a shareholder of Nessma. Yes, the same guy who is bombing civilians with heavy artillery in their homes, the same guy recruiting unmerciful mercenaries to spread the blood of those who raise their voice to claim the values Mrs. Clinton advocates on Nessma TV. The same guy who was first to step out and announce his hostility to the Tunisian revolution, and the guy who was preparing to turn Tunisia into blood and fire to jeopardize its democratic destiny (in connivance with the runaway Ben Ali’s wife Leila Trabelsi)  if destiny didn’t collapse on his own head in Libya. The one whose assets are supposed frozen by the US and the one whom the UN was deliberating on its course of action against him while Mrs. Clinton was on his TV station.
On a side note, did Mrs. Clinton know that Nessma, which usually features in its logo spinning flags of North African countries as it targets this region, in an effort to embrace the revolutionary wave and surf on the trend, started featuring Libya’s independence flag as the revolution in Libya sparkled. But the minute few news came about Gaddafi fighting back and gaining new ground, Nessma immediately changed the Libyan flag to the green Gaddafi flag, suddenly values are not important anymore. To hell the rebels !
So while Mrs. Clinton was talking to the people of Tunisia, those who inspired their Libyan neighbors, those who jumped to offer a supporting hand and provide shelter and medical aid to Libyan refugees, those who raised Libya’s independence flag in support to their neighbors who were being massacred at the same moment by Gaddafi’s bombs and bullets, Nessma was spinning Gaddafi’s flag on the top right corner of Hillary Clinton’s image.
But Gaddafi isn’t the point here, let’s get back to Mr. Berlusconi. The latter, who kissed the hands of Gaddafi, who is the “great friend of Ben Ali” according to his own words, and the dear partner of Mr. Ben Ammar and Mr. Karoui, didn’t miss also the opportunity to feat on one of Nessma’s aired shows to testify his admiration to his own station and his adoration to Ben Ali, but also to remind his advises to Mr. Ben Ammar: to make this channel work just put the beautiful women on the screen, all around .
It seems that Nessma fully embraced the Berlusconi formula. Mrs. Clinton’s talk show featured an audience full of blonds and heavy make-up women in trendy skirts. That’s a nice face of Tunisia nobody would deny, but if one watches back the videos of the people who took the streets to kick Ben Ali out, there’s a kind of mismatch. The faces of the courageous men and women of Sidi Bouzid, Tala, Kasserince, etc. who made the revolution were not the kind of cast of Nessma’s show. Nessma preferred to feature those who had the privileges before the revolution and those who kept them after, the kind of people who watched the revolution in the comfort of their cozy living rooms while others made it on the streets.
One could argue that everyone has a claim and a right in the post-revolutionary Tunisia even those who watched it on their TV while others were being killed in the streets, that’s true. But wait a minute, let’s have a closer look at that right: a person had the particular privilege of sitting in the first row and asking questions to her Excellence the Secretary of State. She, Salwa Smaoui, presented herself as a Microsoft employee. But it was not clear if she was sitting there because she’s the head of Microsoft in Tunisia, the company who offered the Technology Leadership Prize to Ben Ali in 2007 (!) , and the company who is suspected of supporting Ben Ali in his assaults against cyber-dissidents and freedom militants , or because she’s actually the wife of Mr. Nebil Karoui, Nessma’s CEO.
In any case, Tunisians who were mobilized by ideals of equal access to opportunities and fought nepotism to see it back in different hands were not to be particularly receptive to the Head of US diplomacy [12b][12c], who was set up in a little game of small interests.
Nessma’s airwaves were not a neutral platform offered to Mrs. Clinton. Nessma owned the show and used it at its convenience. Why did Mrs. Clinton offer them this ? Why selling her time to Nessma’s market share rather than investing in meeting and talking with the people of Tunisia ?
Possibly because Nessma, as a private station, has better capabilities to produce a nicer show. But a simple set of chairs that even the poor national TV station could have arranged wasn’t enough to create the difference.
In any case, one can wonder if Mrs. Clinton came to meet with Nessma or to meet with the people of Tunisia. If she came to see Nessma we should have known and no offense, but if she came to see the Tunisian people she missed her point. It’s difficult to find a proper adjective when seeing Mrs. Clinton greeting the dear partners Tarek Ben Ammar and the Karoui Bros. before she entered into their studio .
Why did the US Secretary of State offer the privilege to Nessma, at least offered them the opportunity to leverage her in the pursuit of their agenda ? What is their agenda ? These people, mercenaries of business, under Ben Ali or post-revolution, have one and only agenda: audience, which is the driver of money and power. But what is Mrs. Clinton’s agenda ? We hope it was reaching out to the Tunisian people to build true bonds and act for the common benefits of Tunisia and the US, and not to pursue hidden agendas behind closed doors and serve little interests of opportunistic businesses. Hillary Clinton was played out.
The US foreign policy and its diplomacy are a tricky game and a tough job, but it shouldn’t be fooled by obvious chameleons and weathercocks. Mrs. Clinton came to Tunisia in a difficult situation, while some of the street was shouting her out, she trusted her PR in Tunisia with Nessma and she slipped. Nessma outmaneuvered the top US diplomat and advanced its own benefits at the expense of Mrs. Clinton’s interests. Ben Ali’s trails of show biz outplayed the US diplomacy.
But maybe not everything is negative about Nessma. We could think that Nessma successfully leveraged Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Tunisia to boost Tunisia’s PR and image abroad, targeting the international audience, at the cost of undermining Mrs. Clinton’s PR within Tunisia.
If Nessma thought it has more power than the US it probably thought it has enough power to do whatever it wants in Tunisia. But in this case Nessma’s memory would be extremely short. It would have forgotten very quickly that, even under Ben Ali and his tight media control, the people of Tunisia outplayed him and kicked him out. So Nessma cannot outplay Tunisians and impose its rule on them. Indeed, it took just hours for the people of Tunisia to turn things upside down on Nessma and put it under the harsh spot of extremely mobilized and critical public opinion. The impact on Nessma was so huge and annoying that Mr. Karoui, the CEO, felt necessary to hold a press conference to justify himself and enter in damage control mode . Unfortunately, a collateral casualty of this was…Hillary Clinton.