Mainstream Media Coverage on Tunisia: Short, Bittersweet, and Overly Deficient

We all know that after former Tunisian president Ben Ali packed his bags, Egyptian Mubarak and Libyan Gaddafi soon shared similar fates. One was hospitalized for political and moral exhaustion, the other killed in what was a Hollywood-worthy (but slightly gorier) scene. Suddenly, the short-lived spotlight on Tunisia was quickly shifted to Egypt and Libya. The heavy news coverage in Egypt and Libya continues till this day. Tunisia was pushed back to, at best, starring on the headline tickers. The relative international media blackout on Tunisia-related issues, however, can put all parties at a disadvantage. What is at stake here?

Some considerably difficult challenges lie ahead for Tunisia’s rocky transition to democracy. One would think that with all the talk—usually airy and empty—revolving around democracy, especially in the Western world, audiences would be interested in tracking one small country’s ambitions to build a pluralistic society; a country with relative geo-strategic importance perched on Africa’s crown bridging Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Admittedly, keeping out of the headlines does ring in a few benefits for Tunisia. With the exception of the Islamist-Secular dynamics with which the media seem to be overly preoccupied, sensationalism has been kept out of general debates. Further, the Tunisian government, along with civil society, has been afforded the opportunity to go about its business without deeply influential foreign commentary like what we see in Egypt and Libya. Yet, Tunisia being out of the limelight is no new trend. From the early days of the revolts in mid-December, few major news organizations took the movement as seriously as recent history has come to show us. A little before mid-January, however, news started breaking on a more regular basis on major international networks such as the BBC, France24, and others. The small, stable country long described by Westerners as a secular, quiet country, was in up flames. It merited the attention, it seemed, if only as a reminder to Western governments: “Your dictators are not here to stay.”

Sure enough, once the country edged back into stability, news coverage on developments in Tunisia nearly halted.

It is well-accepted in Tunisian folklore that the less attention one receives, the more successful the respective experience will be. “The evil eye is not easy,” it is said, and should be taken seriously. What is most alarming in the lack of media attention may reveal an undercurrent of interest-driven coverage in corporate media channels and another undercurrent of racism/otherness within the audiences consuming the news. The question, as most folks reading this probably realize, is: what news makes money? The second question is: why?

The natural resources (read: oil) Libya has, and Egypt’s proximity to Israel, are two major factors that augment the level of coverage the two countries receive. One factor is material and reads dollar bills, the other is geo-strategic. Tunisia, with nary a natural resource to even sustain the country, does present a crucial interest of study in all countries and academics in the world. The plunge in news coverage on Tunisia exacts a heavy toll on academic efforts in the field of nation building and democratization. The country can be seen as something of a testing vacuum for democracy and Arab sociology. There are several reasons for this.

The country is small, and has a relatively shorter list of “external factors” contributing to the ascension or descent of sociopolitical order—little foreign intervention contributed to Ben Ali’s fall, and most foreign governments took long enough to release statements endorsing the uprisings. It has been demonstrated time and time again that there is little vested interest in the country. Thus, organic movements can have a genuine chance to flourish. It is the perfect atmosphere, then, to put democracy to the test.

Every Constituent Assembly debate should be recorded, transcribed, followed, and reported on, for every one of them reflects the societal nuances that are found all over the region. In constitution drafting, every word, letter, and conjugation should be noted. In the enumeration of presidential candidacy prerequisites, should the word “candidate” be conjugated in the female or male version? The market’s pulse—and how it changes depending on what type of economic system the country eventually adopts—needs to be monitored. What does it mean to go from a closed to an open market in North Africa? How will it contribute to the boom of exports, or the deterioration of the local currency? The conclusions that could be reached from such questions are crucial to our understanding of the modern world.

The honeymoon-reporting phase is over for Tunisia. The euphoria of deposing a long-ruling dictator has ended months ago—a sentiment which could not be more acutely felt than in the country itself.

Even when Tunisia does receive media coverage, it is plagued by constant comparisons with its neighbors. More than anything, apple-orange comparisons with Egypt and Libya rob audiences of understanding the social and economic nuances and contours between the countries. The countries’ diverse colonial history, for instance, impacts modern-day economics and legal frameworks. The Tunisian legal code is a near carbon copy of the French, which influences the methodology the constitution is being written in today. Egypt’s history with the Muslim Brotherhood is decades older than that of Ennahda’s, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is a factor that cannot be ignored. Yet, a plethora of attractive factors still beguile media giants into treating the “Arab Spring” countries as a monolithic entity, with Tunisia receiving an honorable mention of “starting” the trend.

There is more to the news than trendy appeal. There is more to the news than national interests. Serious and regular reporting about Tunisia’s internal challenges is absolutely necessary for our understanding of democratic development and post-Ben Ali North Africa as a whole.

Original article posted on Jadaliyya.

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