Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Why did the government fail to win over the Tunisians? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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What we are talking about here has become a well known fact: It is impossible to control today’s new media with the instruments of the old system. It is true that this is one of the axioms of the modern day, but as the saying goes, “old habits die hard”. This is why the Tunisian government failed to confront its crisis. Those in power did not realize that the state-run media’s audience had diminished over the past few years, to the extent that government information now had barely any influence on mainstream opinion. The old system had lost its captivation due to the emergence of the mass electronic media.

We can also draw an analogy here with public taste in general. In the past, a singer in Tunisia would not have been accredited as such unless they had first passed an official radio test, and had been approved by a panel of around three judges. Afterwards, they would be officially recognized by the state as a recording artist, and thus would be broadcasted to millions. At that time, the broadcasting commission, or the individual in charge, determined the musical taste of the entire nation. They would decide on the singer, and ratify the lyrics and the music. As a result, only a handful of recording artists were approved every decade or so.

Today, we find performers, who have been banned from appearing on national television, registering over two million downloads and hits on the internet. This is an astronomical figure compared to the past, when the most famous recording artists would only sell several thousand cassette tapes. Today there are literally hundreds of public performers, who are widely acclaimed. No one could impose a song or melody upon them, or indeed ban them anymore, despite complaints voiced by state officials regarding the ‘dominance of low-standard entertainment’. Yet these officials are complaining because the decision is no longer in their hands. Whilst the media apparatus has definitely changed, some minds are still thinking and functioning in the same old fashion.

President Ben Ali’s government was once proud to claim that Tunisia was the first country [in the region] to use the internet. This is true to some extent, but the government utilised it as a means of transmitting messages, rather than a genuine two-way process. The internet is more than just a new technology, it is a new concept. Yet the Tunisian government approached it as it had done with the state radio, television, and press. They created websites for the official press agency, the President and the government, and broadcasted state television over the internet. This was deemed as upgrading to the modern media!

In my opinion, Tunisia’s promise to open up to the outside world came too late, as millions of internet users had heard, seen and read contrasting facts for years. I can’t imagine how a few presidential decrees could change peoples’ beliefs so quickly and so easily. Ben Ali, just like Tunisia’s old singers, believed that the broadcasting commission was responsible for the performer, the music and the lyrics. After four decisive weeks he discovered how wrong he was. By ignoring accusations levelled at the government, and popular demands, no matter how much he deemed them to be incorrect or impractical, President Ben Ali widened the gap between the government and the people. It just takes one angry citizen to fire their gun in public, in order to prompt others to do the same.

The Tunisian scenario represents a clash between two different cultures, within one country. The Tunisian President did all that was expected from him in terms of crisis management. Firstly, he acknowledged the existence of a problem, and then announced that he had taken the public’s message on board. As a result, he promised to provide employment opportunities, as per the public demand. Then, he threw a number of ministers and assistants in front of the crowds, as scapegoats. Finally, he declared his intention to end his long period of rule upon completing his current term in office. He also retracted earlier policies, by reopening internet sites and news services which had previously been blocked and banned. Ben Ali could have spared himself all these concessions had he understood and responded to what was being said and discussed on the internet over the past few years. Ben Ali should have opened up the traditional state-run media, in order to keep pace with the popular electronic format. He should have adopted a transparent approach to solving problems in a timely manner, and not after there has been a public uprising.