On January 21, Tunisian journalist Fahem Boukadous was freed from prison a week after that country’s dictatorship fell. Boukadous had been sentenced last July to four years in prison after reporting on a wave of protests in 2008 in the country’s mining region around Gafsa.
Even as a long-time ally of “Western democracies” such as the United States and France, Tunisia didn’t enjoy a free press or an independent trade union movement. Leaders in both sectors had close links to former President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. The news, both inside and outside Tunisia, tended to focus on stability and contentedness.
The popular protests that led to Ben Ali’s January 14 ouster seemed, at least from afar, to come out of nowhere. It was as if they were dreamed up by a few rabble-rousing kids using social media. In fact, those 2008 Gafsa protests were part of a decade-long resurgence of activism from the grassroots of the Tunisian labour movement and beyond, in which public sector workers– and notably teachers– also played an important part.
Courageous journalists such as Fahem Boukadous, as well as countless people using Facebook and youtube, defied the censorship and worked to get the stories out about resistance to the Ben Ali regime and the impacts of the global economic crisis. And it was defiant reporting of the tragic public self-immolation of an underemployed fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, not far from Gasfa, that launched the mass protests in Tunisia and beyond.
In nearby Egypt, workers were a driving force behind the revolution that forced an end to thirty years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak in February. The “April 6” group, one of the early organizers of the popular protests, was formed in solidarity with a general strike called on that day in 2008. Industrial and public-sector workers in Egypt have been organizing independent unions and associations outside of the state-backed trade union federation over the past decade. And on January 30, in the midst of the uprising, the independent unions formed their own federation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Meanwhile, journalists and broadcasters in Tunisia and Egypt have also been busy. In January, soon after Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia, journalists in Arabic- and French-language state-controlled newspapers effectively fired their managers and formed editorial committees to oversee decisions. Egyptian journalists literally walked off the job and joined the protests to avoid having to “report” falsehoods about the uprising in that country.
Cairo university researchers in mass Communications hastily called an international conference for the end of March to “assess different options for a democratic system of media and communication in Egypt” and “develop a model that enables a free flow of information and opinions in and out of Egypt and among all sectors of Egyptian society.”
In Canada, we like to pride ourselves on our independent media and human rights record. But these things can never be taken for granted. Vigilance and struggle are still needed to make freedom of speech and assembly real, as events last June in Toronto, when Canada hosted the G20 summit, remind us. It is also worth reminding ourselves of the call put out by Canadian journalists last summer out of concern for the shrinking flow of information from the federal government. (See article in this issue.) The declaration, signed by members of the board of the Canadian Association of Journalists, documents the strategies the government has used to shrink independent reporting of its activities and calls on editors and journalists to do more to expose the strategy and work around it.
Journalists in Canada don’t often risk jail or beatings to tell a story important to their fellow citizens. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work to keep that space open for ourselves and for all Canadians.