With war waged against terrorism, questions of ethics and deontology have faded into the background. In the meantime, media treatment of the Bardo Attack is a textbook case of politicization that allows us to measure the ambiguity of relations between media and power. The trigger effect of security discourse has mobilized judiciary and police organs born and bred under a dictatorship that was immune to the threat of terrorism. To what extent can regulations contain this return to normalization?
During a debate with journalists, editors, and human rights organizations, the HAICA keyed in on the question of sources, citing in particular the «polyphony of governmental discourse». The objective of polyphony, as theorized by Bakhtine, resides in the capacity to highlight underlying discourse and its dialogic impact on the listener. In the present case, what reveals the elliptical discourse of authorities is the permanence of its dominant source, namely the security institution.
Following press conferences in the wake of the attack —which were animated by confused reports of security failures and descriptions of the assailants’ clothing—emerged a political reality founded upon the urgency of effective security action, specifically the reinforcement of police and intelligence operations. The trigger effect of this discourse prompted images that recall the recent past, dictatorship under which journalists were assigned to manufacture consent within a problematic political context —the definition itself of normalization.
While the authorities are maintaining a blackout on the investigation, mainstream media have framed the debate in the context of whether or not to preserve human rights in the new counterterrorism law. Propelled by a sense of urgency, the debate circumvented dissection and thorough analysis to the benefit of dramatization and emotion. Taking history into account, for instance, we recall under similar circumstances the terrible law against terrorism that was promulgated in 2003 several months after the attack on the synagogue in Djerba. The event was particularly telling of the dictatorship’s cynicism since it fell on 10 December, international Human Rights Day.
On 11 April, Al Hiwar Ettounsi’s talk show J8 focused on the new counterterrorism law. Two days before the adoption of a the new French intelligence law, J8 host Hamza Belloumi highlighted the repressive revisions that were to be passed by a democratic nation —France no less— as if the democratic argument justified the extinction of liberties in the name of security. The reference appears all the more superfluous when we underline the fact that Tunisia is not yet a democratic country. The condemnation of Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla on the basis of the Moroccan anti-terrorism law would have certainly been a more edifying comparison.
For his part in the discussion, journalist Sofiene Ben Hamida —debate opponent of Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, and of Jilani Hammami, Popular Front deputy of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP)— set out to redefine human rights. According to Ben Hamida, «human rights are essentially to reassure harmless, law-abiding citizens». And Jilani Hammami added, «who also have economic and social rights».
Not evoked during the program were the mistrust and fear that exist between citizens and police, and the multitude of court trials incited by police officers on the basis of disrespect of authority, as mentioned by Bochra Belhaj Hmida, lawyer and president of the Commission for Human Rights, Liberties, and Foreign Relations within the Assembly. As she expressed on Radio Express FM, Hmida believes that the draft law concerning the repression of aggression against armed forces is more for the expedition of punitive measures than for the improvement of security force work conditions which are «dismal in some regions». Several provisions of this law «open the door to abuses against disadvantaged citizens», insisted the lawyer.
Nor did the journalists consider the usefulness of a white book (livre blanc) for security and defense where exceptional security provisions—such as, for instance, the securing of large cities by the army and the installation of surveillance camera s— and associated costs would be laid out in complete transparency.
On 9 April, Al Hiwar Ettounsi’s 24/7 program broached the topic of social networks and terrorism. Sadok Hammami, university teacher at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI), “gently” reproached traditional Tunisian press for being «purely informative» whereas, he argued, events and issues related to terrorism must be analyzed and contextualized. When we know that jihadists are utilizing digital technology for propaganda and recruitment purposes, it is indeed surprising that Tunisian journalists are so slow to embrace Twitter. What is even more surprising is that the history of propaganda is not yet integrated into curriculum for journalism given that remedial technical training alone will certainly not suffice to resolve the issues facing editorial teams and media outlets.
How can we prevent, for example, that the proximity of journalists and their sources engenders a proximity to particular references? In this regard, journalists convert to the same anti-human rights points of view as police, while others become relays for terrorist groups. There are even some who became specialists in verifying the authenticity of their communications.
According to sociologist Jérôme Berthaut, «journalists’ sources shape ways of thinking that will spread». In his book, La banlieue du “20 heures,” ethnographie de la production d’un lieu commun journalistique, he shows how subject matter in the media relating to the maintenance of order are constructed and reproduced by judiciary and police organs, and propagated and relayed by journalists.
The entrance of police unions onto the Tunisian media scene has even further complicated this relationship. As has been apparent on several occasions, police unions have taken charge of disclosing information. It is thus not surprising that police unions are as concerned as journalists regarding the draft law concerning the repression of aggression against armed forces; articles 6 and 7 of draft law 25/2015 condemn to ten years imprisonment and a fine of fifty thousand dinars any person who divulges information concerning to national security.
In light of the recent voluntary slip by Minister of the Interior Najem Gharsalli, it seems that journalists are faced with a choice between partnering with the Minister of the Interior or professionalism. On the occasion of his hearing before the General Legislation Commission within the ARP, the former judge warned: