Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Letters from Tunisia

Since the protests began in Tunisia two weeks ago, I’ve been following the events closely – mostly via Twitter, because the mainstream media was so late to catch on, and also via my Tunisian friends on Facebook (some of whom I know personally, others of whom I’ve never met).  In an event like this, with heavy Internet filtering and a lack of strong media coverage, it’s often difficult to discern what’s happening (just last night, false rumors of a coup spread like wildfire).  To that end, Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni has been providing photographs and updates from the ground, Tunisian blog Nawaat is updated nearly every hour, Brian Whitaker of the Guardian has been doing a great job on his personal blog sharing daily news roundups (today’s here) and Al Jazeera English has consistently provided thorough coverage through its vast network, and despite an extremely eventful week in the region (the Sudan referendum, Algerian riots, and collapse of the Lebanese government are all competing with Tunisia for the media’s attention).

Photo of a lawyers' sit-in in Kasserine by Lina Ben Mhenni

Along with Twitter and Facebook, I’ve received numerous missives from friends on the ground in Tunisia.  In the past 48 hours, those notes and letters have become increasingly desperate.  From one friend, an e-mail at 10pm Tunis time last night:

At this moment I am broke! I am lost between dictatorship and government violence on one side, and anarchy on the other side. And even though I am weaker than ever, I will wake up tomorrow with the same determination I had for the last two decades, the same determination my fellow Tunisians have, a determination to obtain my freedom and justice.

And from another, whose updates throughout the past day have made the human face of the uprisings so very real.  Earlier today, following the killings of a 14-year-old, a woman, and a professor (among many others, likely far more than the media is reporting), he wrote:

Actually i’m safe, Curfew Decreed in Tunisia, many dead today, among them a university professor and a woman and a 14 old child, it’s crazy !!! and the most sad thing is that an american diplomat on aljazeera said “we invite the 2 parts to calm and we are neutral” :(( this is a free hand for criminals to kill us all, because in reality in tunisia there is no parts but objectively a massacre angainst civilians and a crimes against humanity, …..tonight with some friends we broke the Curfew, many are injured by police bullets, the same thing in many regions of the capital, in my nature and carachter i don’t want to ask for help, even from my friends, but in this exact moment we need a great action we need your help, you can stop this !!!

Though it’s certainly worth noting that not everyone in Tunisia shares the opinion that the US should step in, the vast majority of people I’ve spoken to–both from Tunisia and neighboring countries–feel that the United States’ public position on Tunisia at present is abhorrent.

The same friend also shared the CV [PDF] of Hatem Bettahar, the professor who was killed today [French] by police during a demonstration in Douz.  According to Le Parisien, Bettahar was a French citizen who was in Tunisia staying with family.  There’s something particularly heartbreaking about that; I don’t think it’s Bettahar’s accomplishments, as impressive as they are, but the idea of a life cut mid-sentence, by a government that cares so little about its own people…which of course is compounded by the deafening silence from the establishment.

And tonight, on the phone with a Tunisian friend in California, whose phone calls to contacts in Tunisia have been filled with gunshots in the background, and who is solidly pleading for the US government to step in and, at the very least, denounce the shootings.

My Tunisian compatriots having said all that needs saying about the government, I’m going to throw my own barb at the American media (with exception, namely VOA, the Times’ Robert Mackey, and FP), whose lack of coverage is absolutely unacceptable.  While the establishment media is busy chattering on about Sarah Palin’s “blood libel” gaffe (hint: Palin’s an idiot, move on), Tunisians are dying at the hands of their government and nobody seems to care, despite the obvious parallels to be drawn between the events in Tunisia and those in Iran in the summer of 2009.  As Iranian blogger Golnaz Esfandiari reminded me earlier today, “Iran’s unrest received much more attention than Tunisia because of its ‘rogue’ status & controversial nuclear program.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and Golnaz agrees): The media doesn’t work for the US government.

As I was writing this, Ethan Zuckerman posted a timely piece analyzing the media coverage of Tunisia thus far and expressing his own disappointment:

I don’t know whether most people are missing the events in Tunisia because they don’t speak French or Arabic, because they don’t see the Mahgreb as significant as Iran, because they’re tired of social media revolution stories or because they’re mourning the tragedy in Tucson. I’m disappointed and frustrated, not just because I care deeply for Tunisian friends who have been working for justice in their country for years, but because real change in the world is a rare thing, and it’s a shame that people would miss the chance to watch it unfold.

Tonight, my heart is with Tunisia, for a better tomorrow.

6 Comments

  1. Jillian,

    Great post, I’d have written myself if I had time, I just wanted to make two quick points. One practical and one…let’s say off the record (wink, wink):

    - The elephant in the conversation is that US media’s lack of interest despite some genuine practical reasons (access, language barrier, poor knowledge of the Maghreb) is that “Arabs” rising in non-violent way, peacefully, to demand democratic rights does not jive with the narrative carefully constructed over the last 10 years centered on themes of terrorism, Islam etc. In my opinion the democratic uprising in Tunisia demolishes a lot of the assumptions US media have been operating upon vis-a-vis that area of the world.

    -”Off the record”: some of our journalist friends in the US are not very receptive to constructive criticism. When faced with events of such complexity, in my experience, their default setting is to retreat to safe stories “relevant” to whatever is floating currently on the news cycle. For instance, I submitted an op-ed to a highly reputable US newspaper at the onset of the democratic uprising in Tunisia, the response I got was:”this is of no interest to our readers, we prefer to focus on relevant issues.” The lesson I took away from that is that I had to do something to change that and to make what’s going on in Tunisia relevant to them and their readers. Thankfully, the Tunisian people weren’t going to put their aspirations for liberty and dignity on hold waiting for an 800-word approval from some American journalist. In the meantime I was surprised today that a journalist form said publication started following my twitter feed.

    Hope is not a strategy but it sure softens an otherwise harsh reality.

    • Nasser,

      You do realize you just defeated the purpose of “off the record,” right? ;)

      Excellent point re: journalists. I’ve had the same experience numerous times over the past year, particularly when the Haystack story broke open. Those same editors who professed disinterest jumped on it shortly thereafter. Very frustrating indeed, particularly in a genuinely grave situation such as this.

      -J

  2. I really hope all this situation in Tunisia may come to an end soon.

  3. It is indeed a complex subject – what does and does not capture the attention of the American media. Are there specific topics that are not covered because they fall outside of the official political narrative? Yes. Are there topics that are not covered because they are contrary to the corporate interests that own the major American media businesses? Yes. But there is also a third category – topics and stories that are not marketable to an American audience because they are too obscure to the average American. The reality is that non-Americans across the world, know America better than Americans know other countries and societies. And although it is often fashionable, and sometimes true, that this can be blamed on a myopic ignorance, it is also true that the reason so many non-Americans know about America is because of its scale and impact on the global conversation. By contrast, smaller nations, be it Belgium or Bahrain have a lesser impact and, are thus less well known and understood. The greater familiarity that non-Americans have with America often leads them, understandably, to call on the US for help. Sometimes this is justified, especially so where the unjust regime relies on American support to stay in power. The challenge to journalists and media activists in the fortunate position of finding themselves in the third category is to make the obscure palpable, to effectively communicate why these events are important to that specific audience, why is it relevant to principles that they hold to be important, why the people who are suffering on the screen in front of them are a part of their common humanity, why solidarity is the only real insurance for normal people everywhere in the world. But, in the final analysis, though every possible effort must be spent to secure the solidarity and support of decent people wherever they can be found, it is the people on the ground, the members of the relevant body-politic who must decide the conditions under which they want to live, and the character of their government.

  4. Jillian,

    This is a very informative post. Thank you.

    Whenever I feel the world is just too much (and that is quite often these past two years or so) I read a speech given as a rectorial address by Jimmy Reid long before I became a university student and feel my spirits raised with a new sense of determination to never give up hope. The address, Alienation, was reprinted verbatim in the New York Times. The paper described it as “the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address”.

    Perhaps it may help one or two people in Tunisia, and around the world as they struggle for their rights, their dignity and their sense of worth. Perhaps it may help others to understand the lives of others too.

    http://www.scottishleftreview.org/li/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=336

    Best wishes to you all.

    Stay safe

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