TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) — Every once in a while, we TV journalists have to admit that we’ve made a bad choice of stories.
You can research an idea from afar, call local producers to check that it’s viable, arrange for interviews and apply for all the proper permissions, yet somehow, despite all the careful planning, the whole project occasionally flops and crashes to the ground in a disheartening thud.
In Tunisia shooting this month’s edition of Inside the Middle East, our plan was to film age-old cave dwellers who still live like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, in homes carved right out of the mountain rock.
We flew to Djerba in southern Tunisia, then drove several hours to a small village called Matmata.
All the ingredients were (supposed to be) there: the exotic visuals, with women and men weaving their own clothing and cave wives boiling water on a fire of smoldering twigs.
There were social angles to this story as well: the Tunisian government has been trying to encourage cave dwellers to improve their standard of living by moving to urban housing, with running water and electricity.
My producer Schams Elwazer and I were pleasantly surprised by the first cave we visited: there was a cave wife making bread, and what I thought looked like a cave husband, a cave elder sitting in the inner courtyard of this unusual home.
We started filming when a 4X4 full of tourists pulled up behind us. A few minutes later, two other 4X4’s, packed to the gills with camera-wielding visitors, maneuvered their way down a sandy hill to the cave’s wide entrance.
Alarm bells went off: we’re weren’t shooting a story; we were being taken on a “tourist tour.” Schams and I have worked together long enough to know what the other is thinking when something is going wrong and I could read the expression on her face: we needed to leave.
We decided to film enough material for a one minute “vignette” and find an emergency replacement story to run in our November show.
I’d heard of Neila Charchour Hachicha, a vocal critic of Tunisian president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali … Hachicha is Tunisia’s most high profile dissident and the founder of the country’s opposition “Parti Liberal Mediterraneen.”
She recently complained that after speaking out publicly against Ben Ali’s “autocratic” regime at a conference in Washington, DC, her family was harassed by government authorities and her husband sentenced to a ten year prison sentence on a trumped up charge.
Hachicha also said in an interview this year that the last presidential election in Tunisia, which saw Ben Ali reelected with more than 94% of the vote, was “undemocratic on all levels.”
Neila Charchour Hachicha was taking great risks, but seemed willing to speak out. I decided she would make a great profile for Inside the Middle East.
However, the mere mention of her name seemed to make people in Tunisia uncomfortable. I could sense reluctance when I asked for her contact details. Nobody seemed to know where the country’s most famous dissident lived, what her phone number was or even if she was still in the country. I was determined to get in touch with her, even if it meant being turned down.
Funnily, the only way to Neila Charchour Hachicha, it turned out, was through journalists we know in Lebanon, who’d published a Charchour op-ed piece in April. Finally armed with an email address for Charchour, I twice requested an interview, to no avail. I still haven’t heard back from her. Was the phone number we had for her wrong? Had the pressure from all the recent publicity discouraged Neila Charchour from answering our requests?
Tunisia is a stable, relatively prosperous country, but critics complain that it’s not only vocal, high-profile regime critics who are kept from bringing their message to the wider public.
In our hotel in Tunis, researching story and profile ideas, we discovered that some Web sites criticizing the regime were inaccessible. One in particular, a satirical web journal called Bakchich.info, that I’d accessed from Atlanta before heading out to the region, was blocked in Tunisia.
“Reporters Without Borders” recently issued an official complaint after one of Bakchich.info’s reporters was expelled from Tunisia last September. It was becoming clear to us that Tunisia, despite being socially progressive -with women right’s for instance way ahead of other countries- was still politically in line with the rest of the region: dissent was not easily tolerated. Still, we were able to find and film profile pieces of two fascinating players in Tunisia.
First we caught up with the Arab world’s only Jewish legislator, 80-year-old Roger Bismuth.
He won a seat in the Tunisian Senate, created a year and a half ago. His life, from his childhood in 1930’s Tunis to the dawn of the 21st century, made for a fascinating story and a colorful visual illustration of the Arab world over the last seven decades.
Later, we met Tarak Ben Ammar, a powerful Tunisian film producer who’s worked on films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and whose media empire has made him one of the most important players in the entertainment industry today.
Armed with two stand-out profiles, we left Tunisia happy; with a tinge of disappointment that the voices of those who become unpopular with authorities still seem so difficult to hear in the region.