In the North African nation of Tunisia, in ancient times known as “the breadbasket of Rome”, where street riots continue despite teargas response from the police, and longtime politicians wonder how much longer they’ll cling to office (answer: not very), a day no one really imagined has arrived.
For the first time since the country gained independence from France in 1956, major newspapers are publishing what they like. The censor’s office is vacant, his chair empty. Stories now go straight from reporters to editors to today’s paper, without making the once-mandatory stop at the censor, whose major concerns had been articles on human rights and those critical of recently ousted President Ben Ali. Particularly likely to rouse the censor were articles combining the two and condemning Ben Ali’s limited approach to human rights, for which, over the years, a number of journalists were imprisoned and tortured.
It’s hard to imagine such a stranglehold on the press. Perhaps the last time the US experienced such tight restrictions was in World War II. Even then, the limits were intended to provide safety for Allied forces and matériel. President Roosevelt came in for journalistic criticism from time to time, though tame from a 21st-century, Facebook, Wikileaks perspective. His generals, from Eisenhower to Patton, also caught their share of disapproval, often in editorial cartoons. At no time was there an iron grip as in Tunisia.
It wasn’t just Tunisian newspapers that were censored. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter had to be activated with aliases, and getting onto the internet itself was enormously difficult, since the only internet feed was government-run. Those who used social networks were often followed, occasionally arrested, by police. But the chilling effect of censorship on Tunisian newspapers, which, once read, are passed from hand to hand, remained the broadest of the iron bands.
“Will you go backwards, back to censorship?” asked one Western reporter of a large Tunisian newspaper’s editor.
“We cannot go back,” he replied. “We cannot.”