Transition in Tunisia: The Role of the Media


In the span of only one month, Tunisia has witnessed the historic passing of a transitional justice law and adoption of a new constitution. Implementation of transitional justice processes, as mandated through the law passed on December 24th, 2013, has already commenced with the selection of commissioners of the upcoming Truth and Dignity Commission.

These advances were widely praised—in the region and internationally—as positive and progressive steps for the country. However, Tunisia’s full transition is far from over, and the effort to overcome the legacy of dictatorship and sharp social and political divisions in the country will require substantial engagement from all sectors of society.

One of these key sectors is one that is also largely overlooked: the media. In recognition of the importance of an independent press during transitions, ICTJ staff were invited to offer their international expertise and knowledge in a training for journalists in transitional justice, co-organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) and Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM).

The training sessions, titled "The Transitional Justice Law and the Role of Media," took place in Tunis on February 20th and in Sousse on 24-25 February, 2014. The discussion aimed to strengthen the capacity of Tunisia’s media to report on the implementation of the new transitional justice law, and help promote effective participation of victims and the wider population in the process.

In the training, ICTJ’s Rim el Gantri, Howard Varney, and Felix Rategoui noted the importance of disseminating accurate and balanced information on the process of transitional justice in Tunisia, but also stressed that media must take responsibility for its role in shaping how such facts and events are interpreted.

By reporting accurately and treating transitional justice as an issue of societal importance, media can help catalyze public interest and engagement in transitional justice efforts—such as official truth-seeking that will be undertaken soon in Tunisia— and contribute to a robust national debate.

The training allowed journalists to clarify important attributes of the law, and gave them a space in which to discuss their concerns over how the country will be moving forward.

Aside from a series of sessions detailing the many significant points media can come to expect in the lifecycle of a truth commission, the journalists and editors attending the conference discussed the importance of upholding the ethical rules of their profession, ensuring adequate space and prominence of quality information, and mitigating extreme points of view within divisive issues. Such approaches to reporting on transitional justice would significantly contribute to the success of the transitional process through an informed public opinion.

Rim El Gantri, Director of ICTJ’s Tunis Office, said she was encouraged by the level of serious engagement demonstrated by the journalists who participated at the training. “It’s worth noting that all participants agreed that journalistic independence was a crucial requirement for the success of the process,” she said.

Lessons from Other Contexts

ICTJ also presented lessons from other countries where the media played a key role, particularly drawing on the experiences of South Africa and Peru.

In South Africa, the broadcast media dedicated significant space to the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), depicting in-depth narratives of live hearings and providing public access to testimonials of victims which was unmatched by print media or even the TRC’s final report.

“Media was critical in enabling a meaningful public engagement, particularly in rural areas” said Howard Varney, Senior Program Advisor at ICTJ, and advisor to the South African TRC. One such example was the weekly television program TRC Special Report: Stories Behind the Stories, which provided the audiences with context and analysis of the events under investigation by the TRC.

Felix Reátegui, Senior Associate at Truth and Memory Program of ICTJ, elaborated on the impact of media on the work of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (PTRC), in which he served a chief of the Final Report Unit. He explained that, by politicizing the coverage and clearly taking sides, the media coverage of the process lacked objectivity and failed to mitigate the contentious discourse. This, he said, acted as a catalyst for further disputes on the work of TRC.

“The media narratives were never focused on substantive coverage, which was unfortunately limited to accusations of bias,” said Reátegui. “This resulted in futile public arguments that only worked to pull Peru’s process backward.”

Transitional Justice measures underway in Tunisia, such as reparations, fact-finding commission, and the military trials for the martyrs and wounded of the revolution, were illustrated by Kora Andrieu, Associate Human Rights Expert at OHCHR. Additionally, Amine Ghali, Programs Director at Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, and Fakher Gafsi, Lawyer and Expert at Kawakibi Center, explained the drafting process of the TJ law and the different relevant articles of the law, elaborating on the underlying challenges and discussions.

The Road Ahead

The importance of discussions held in Tunis and Sousse was addressed in the conversation between Mr. Hafedh Ben Salah, Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, and ICTJ’s Rim El Gantri during the introductory meeting on March 7th. El Gantri conveyed the highlights of the training, emphasizing that journalists should inform the public on all stages of the process and, thus, be welcomed by the government as an integral part of the transitional justice process in Tunisia.

El Gantri also emphasized the complexity of the role of media in transitional justice.

“There are no guarantees how some journalists would choose to cover the process,” she says. “However, journalists need to recognize that they, too, shape the outcomes of transitional processes. As Tunisia sets out to implement the initiatives defined in the transitional justice law, an independent and engaged media will only help ensure their ultimate success.”

Photo: ICTJ training in Tunisia, March 2014