De-radicalization and The Return of Tunisia Foreign Fighters: Tunisian Media Outlets are in Deep Water

Déradicalisation et combattants revenants en Tunisie : la difficile couverture médiatique

Elections of Emerging New Differences

Dark Light


When discussing the Tunisian media coverage on terrorism, this is how it has been described as; “Difficult”, “altered” and “unrealistic”.

Covering the subject of “De-radicalization” and the allegedly Tunisian terrorists coming back from the conflict zones has proved to be a real headache for the Tunisian media outlets. And, all interviewed experts have confirmed the aforementioned statement.

“I wonder what the Arabic term for De-radicalization that the Tunisian media is using?”, Thameur Mekki questions; the editor in chief of the blog “Nawaat”, when he was asked about this subject. He was not the only one to put this question on the table; Abdelkrim Hizaoui, a professor at the “Institut De Presse et Des Sciences de L’Information” and the president of the organizations “Media Development Centre” has followed suit. Zied Krichen has mirrored them; “De-radicalization“ is a foreign term that might be the concern of certain NGOs […] I have no idea how this concept that have been brought up by Saudi Arabia has become a strategy in Europe […] for our fellow citizens this term does not exist.” he says.

Talking about de-radicalization is not an easy task for the Tunisian media, as well as the issue of the Tunisian foreign fighters coming backing from the conflict zones. Among the reasons that hinder the media from discussing the matter at hand are mainly; the absence of valid information, difficulty in apprehending the subject, the lack of factual data, the media tends to be hasty when it comes to this subject, self-censorship and public disapproval.

Thameur Mekki explains that it was his own choice to not cover these two subjects “I personally think that we do not have enough information in order to cover this subject, and therefore, I refuse media sensationalism that would promote pro-war rhetoric and over the top patriotism which will make us lose sight of the actual facts.”

De-radicalization and The Returnees: The absence of official data and the lack of media coverage.

According to the individuals we have interviewed, the absence of official information is the main reason behind the lack of media coverage of these subjects. Néji ZaÏri, the newsroom chief of staff in MosaÏque FM (Popular radio station in Tunisia) explains that the only possible way to get hold of information on Tunisians in conflict zones or on those who have returned, is through foreign studies. “This is a phenomenon that we couldn’t understand in Tunisia because of the lack of official statistics and information. Neither the Ministry of Interior nor the Ministry of Justice really communicate on these issues.” He says, adding that when asked about certain questions, these authorities, simply answer in gibberish.

Hamza Belloumi, a renowned host of the “The Four Truths” show streamed on the private TV channel Elhiwar Ettounsi, explains that some time ago the authorities claimed that 2.500 Tunisians have went to fight abroad, however, lately they started talking about only “hundreds”. This ambiguous storyline makes it even harder for journalists to do their job properly.

The absence of official statistics and data about the detained individuals in the Tunisian prisons, and the lack of information about the national “de-radicalization” strategy are certainly affecting the media objectivity.

Journalists Speaking Their Minds”

Even though today it is hard to talk about de-radicalization or the returning of the Tunisian fighters, in 2016 these matters were hot topics. In fact, Tunisian officials were torn between accepting the jihadists or banning them from returning to the country.

Thameur Mekki, the editor-in-chief of Nawaat, has criticized the indecisiveness of journalists and politicians when it comes to these subjects “There is polarization of politicians: they are either calling for amnesty or endorsing the prohibition of Tunisian foreign fighters from coming back to the country.”

This statement was supported by Zied Dabbar, a journalist at the daily francophone newspaper “Le Temps”, who claimed that only after the revolution journalists have learned how to cover news on this phenomenon. He, also, explained that it is difficult to discuss the issue of de-radicalization and Tunisian Returnees; “We have to always take a stand: in general; we have to either be with or against Islamists. There is no middle ground.”

This lack of neutrality might be explained by the fact that media outlets are looking for building audience according to Sonia Nefzi who have worked as a producer at the state-owned TV channel “Al-Wataniya” from 2001 to 2017. “Media outlets are relentlessly working on maximizing their number of viewers through raising controversy around these subjects. There is around two years, since, they started publicly discussing the return of the Tunisian foreign fighters. The media coverage tends to hold one political party or another responsible for this issue. There is no objectivity, there is always a controversy. Then we, eventually, end up having chaotic TV shows” the now independent TV producer analyzes.

Other reasons for the “Black-out”.

For Sadok Hammami, a lecturer at IPSI, if there is a problem with media coverage surely it is not the absence of information, but rather it is the editorial model. “Media coverage of de-radicalization and returning foreign fighters is built on raw information or mere editorial analysis with no solid link between the two. There are an absence of proper journalistic investigations, factual explanations and fact-checking, simply, because Tunisian journalists are not qualified to cover such issues.” he explains.

Zied Krichen, from “Le Maghreb” newspaper, questions the very identity of media outlets, and he even relates the coverage failure to socio-professional reasons. He explains further, that media outlets are too urban, too self-centered and they are too far removed from the very origins of radicalization. “There are few investigations and journalistic work done on radicalization in Tunisia.” he adds. From Zied Krichen’s point of view Radicalization is caused by social rupture between the various actors of society.” However, media outlets are not interested in that, they are targeting urban audiences and, therefore, addressing the citizens of cities (…)” he explained.

He, also, emphasizes the issue of media-timing, remembering an attempt to contact imprisoned radicalized individuals. He claims that the authorities, who had given their consent at first, had never went through with the rest of the procedures. “Authorities do not give the time of day to major media outlets; they take a long time to respond and give permissions. Information is temporary, therefore waiting for the Tunisian authorities to follow with their protocols means wasting time. “ he explains.

Khawla Sliti, program producer, presenter and journalist with Shems FM, also highlights the issue of the relation between the journalists and authorities; “The relation between the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the journalists could be summarized in a mere “Press Release”. When we ask for information on past issues, we are always told: “it’s in progress”, but we’re never told more.” she stats.

The producer Sonia Nefzi has agreed with the previous statement. She was also confronted by the authorities’ refusal to have access to radicalized individuals in prison. The question of timing is also important; “We cover the subject, then we, simply, watch people frantic reactions to this coverage unfold on social media outlets, and the next day we forget about it, hop! A new subject takes over […] we do not have the tradition to do a follow-up discussion to such chronical issues.“ she explained.

Journalists are between a rock and a hard place.

Like many others, Sonia Nefzi talks about the difficulty of making certain points of view heard. To give space to a person saying that it is necessary to take responsibility for Tunisians who had fought or had gone abroad, could be considered as propaganda; “It would be considered as hailing terrorism […]” she explains.

Shems FM reporter and presenter Khawla Sliti makes the same point. She says that speaking to a guest who they are pro the idea of Tunisian authorities taking responsibility of the Tunisian fighters coming back from the conflict zones is a risky move; “We should expect criticism and insults from netizens.” she says. Yet, she explains that it is her job to talk about this phenomenon that affects the society and that nothing should hinder the flow of discussions on the return of Tunisians from the conflict zones.

Journalists are standing between the rock and a hard place. They are unable to work due to the lack of information and the fear of mistreating such a delicate subject, which is related to security. They are at the same time afraid of generating uneven public reaction, which push the journalist to self-censorship.

Accordingly, Zied Dabbar said “The authorities are implementing the policy of blackout; they are only welling to discuss the security methods used to mitigate the issue. Alas! journalists would eventually find themselves following suit. And, if you suggest through a media platform that the Ministries of Education and Social Affairs, along with the Parliament should work together on this issue, people would accuse you of supporting Jihadists.”

De-radicalization and The Tunisian returning Foreign Fighters: Issues subjected to controversy.

According to Sonia Nefzi, journalists must learn how to cover terrorism related news; it is a matter of work ethics. She, also, says “Now, it is good that the national television “Al-Watanya”, waits to get information from an official source before broadcasting any news, however, this might affect the timeline of the information since the news could be found on other TV channels or on Social Media. “

This inconvenience is partly linked, according to the TV producer, to the lack of investigative journalism as well as the inability of Tunisian journalists to find information by themselves, which would help them spark a public debate.

“Tunisian journalists tend to treat information as a daily outcome, that can be good, however, due to the lack of capacities there is no follow-ups on this news.” she adds.

Success Stories

There are, however, some examples of successful coverage and testimonies from Tunisian returning foreign fighter; such as a story published by Inkyfada and an interview with a returnee conducted by Hamza Belloumi on his show “Four Truths”. There is, also, the long-term work of journalist and author Hedi Yahmed. He recently published a book entitled “I was in Raqqa”, the testimony of a Tunisian who fought with ISIS.

If Hedi Yahmed is an exception, it is because he has been working on the issue for 17 years. At the time, then a journalist for the magazine Al hakaek, he covered the attack of 2002 on the Gribaa. For him there are simple solutions for Tunisian journalists to talk more and better about de-radicalization and returnees. “We must start by doing something simple: read and learn as much as possible about the subject”. However, he points out that a journalist can only afford to work on long-term topics if they work in the right conditions: “If you work to survive, you cannot do anything beyond that”. However, the precariousness of journalists and lack of resources in many editorial offices are hindering this transformation.

For Hamza Belloumi, it is possible to talk about de-radicalization and returnees. Like Hedi Yahmed, he managed to have a young man who came back from the conflict zones come and testify in his TV Show “The Four Truths”.

“But it’s hard to find people who will testify,” he says. For Hamza, there is no wall between the journalist and the public who is open to discussing these topics. On the other hand, he thinks that it is necessary to have more testimonies of this kind in order to show to the public that de-radicalization is necessary. Regarding communicating with the authorities, he said; “There is a problem of communication on the part of the authorities. There is no real debate on the issue, and each time we question things we get the impression that the authorities are telling us off, they would say that everything will be done by the law and that it is not necessary that we discuss it.”

It is, therefore, important that the authorities change their approaches. Especially, that they are important actors for media coverage of these issues. Additionally, this change will help citizens to be properly informed on these subjects as well as it will help them form their own point of view.

What are the solutions?

One of the key solutions would be transparency; “The Ministry of the Interior, the Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should give us more information on the situation of Tunisians in conflict zones and on those who have returned,” demands Thameur Mekki.

But beyond transparency, it is also a collaborative work that Néji Zaïri of Mosaïque FM advocates; “Even journalists with a free time will not be able to do, for instance, a field work in Turkey and find witnesses if the Tunisian authorities do not help them. “

Other people, on the contrary, believe that access to information is guaranteed in Tunisia, especially after the ratification of 2016 law on access to information. “It’s up to journalists to make use of it,” says Abdelkrim Hizaoui, while Hédi Yahmed believes that a journalist does not wait for someone to give them an information; “They have to take it themselves! You must have your sources to get the data. The problem should rather be related to the treatment of the information and understanding it and not how to have it. “

The problem comes back to information processing and viewer/reader habits, as Zied Dabbar points out: “Tunisians follow the mass media a lot; there is an excessive consumption of talk shows and “trash TV” shows, where we do not discuss these important societal topics.”


Doing Things “The Other Way Around”

“Regarding this subject; things should be done the other way around” says Abdelhamid Riahi, editor-in-chief of Al Chourouk daily newspaper, “If the authorities, who are supposed to be the compass of the country, do not give us directions, then journalists cannot talk about these topics, what can we say? ” He demands.

Abdelkrim Hizaoui agrees as well; “Journalists convey the positions of politicians and researchers, and if the subject is not brought into the debate, journalists will not do it; it is not the other way around! The media coverage reflects an existing discourse conceived by experts and politicians […] What is missing in the media discourse is the sociological and political raw material of researchers that would help put the de-radicalization on the public agenda. But the job is not done properly. “

In Tunisia, we have the journalism of “transmission” as explained by the professor at the IPSI Sadok Hammami; “The journalists transmit the attitude of the political and social actors within the public space. Thus, they tend to neglect the analyzing side of the job. However, the question is do journalists have the right conditions to investigate and to explore all means leading to information.”

If the media coverage on de-radicalization and the Tunisians coming back from conflict zones is lacking, beyond the given reasons, at that point we must question how we perceive the work of a journalist and their way of practicing it.

Finally, it is, also, a question of how you do journalism: Are they transmitters or precursors? Do they need to wait for official information, which may never come? or just look for the information themselves? And, what about the public opinion and the public debate; what type of information shall they be provided with? And how the public debate shall be created?

What is important, as well is that journalists need time to learn how to cover terrorism related news. They need to learn from their mistakes and not tiptoe around them, knowing that the process of media liberation is still ongoing.

Translated by:

Imen Nighaoui is a Program Developer at the Climate Tracker…
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