In addition to writing about the impact of Mohammed Bouazizi on the occasion of his tragic self immolation, I thought it would be intersesting to explore the evolution of Tunisian propaganda as it became increasingly unable to deal with the growing protests. I have used the main Tunisian French daily, La Presse to show how the message changed from December 17 to January 14 – a month of protests that changed the course of Tunisian history.
La Presse is Tunisia’s oldest French language newspaper (founded in 1936). It is linked closely with the government. Under Ben Ali, as with all media in the country, they were closely monitored and censored by the government.
December 17, 2010
On this date, Mohammed Bouazizi self immolated in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia. La Presse, unaware as everyone else of what would transpire that day in Sidi Bouzid, leads with a story on Ben Ali’s visit with Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, and furthering Qatar-Tunisia relations. The irony is unmistakable as Qatar has emerged as a key supporter of Arab revolts in general, and specifically of Tunisia’s long-oppressed Islamist leaders, Ennahdha.
December 21, 2010
From the 17th until the 20th, neither Bouazizi nor the protests in the south were mentioned. The first headline in La Presse regarding protests in Sidi Bouzid occurred on December 21, a rather terse and ominous one liner on “Incidents that have happened in Sidi Bouzid: Precisions from an official source.”
December 24, 2010
In the following days, the press continued to float stories about the president’s plans for economic development, but it wasn’t until the December 24 that La Presse reported on actions being taken in Sidi Bouzid. This was clearly an effort to ensure that the events would stay, at least in the public’s eye, as a localized event. But by this point, the protests were already spreading. The headline reads that the regional counsel of Sidi Bouzid sends its strongest thanks to President Ben Ali. In an adjoining story, Ben Ali’s hated wife is praised for her tremendous work in support of Arab women.
December 25-27, 2010
From the 25 until the 27, La Presse made a targeted effort to direct attention to positive work in vulnerable regions. Beginning in Kasserine (close to Sidi Bouzid) on the 25th, to Le Kef and Jendouba near Algeria in the west. Protests had been spreading and this can be seen as another effort to cut them off before they reached the important coastal cities of Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, and Gabes. The interior regions have long suffered form underdevelopment compared to the richer cities on the coast, which benefit from manufacturing and tourist income. By the 27th, Ben Ali was calling for decentralization of government – at the time, if it could have been taken seriously, this would have been considered a major reform.
ByDecember 28, the myth of Bouazizi had spread far enough that it could no longer be ignored by the press. A small headline toward the top of La Presse refers obliquely to “Reactions (of the government) following the isolated and painful incident in Sidi Bouzid.” The following day, Bouazizi’s name makes its first appearance on the front page, reporting that Bouazizi is at the burn unit of a Tunis area hospital, Ben Ali was keeping vigil at his bedside. An editorial reports on the humanity and ethics of Ben Ali, for both Bouazizi and the country (he also called for greater social protections that day)
December 30-31, 2010
By the 30th of December, Ben Ali was forced into announcing major jobs and investment programs as well as changes in the government. On the 30th he announced a partial cabinet reshuffle, the following day he announced the replacement of several regional governors (largely hated by local populations). Protests had spread to all major cities, including Tunis, leading to the issue of travel warnings by foreign embassies. The U.S. issued its warning on December 30, before the protests had been reported in the local papers.
January 3, 2011
The first few days of the new year the Tunisian press tried to capitalize on the new year festivities and well wishes of the president. By the 3rd, as protests continued, La Presse was in full propaganda mode. They lead with: “Le progrès est humain ou il ne l’est pas. Un principe universel adopté par la Tunisie, un pays qui avance à pas sûrs sur le chemin de l’excellence sous la sage conduite de son président.” Or in English: “Progress is human or it is not progress. A universal principle adopted by Tunisia, a country that is marches forward on its path of excellence under the wise leadership of its president.” Perhaps reinforcing Tunisia’s stability, neighboring headlines describe the conflict in Palestine and the unraveling security situation in Cote d’Ivoire.
January 6, 2011
By Thursday, January 6, regular protests were underway in all major cities in the country. The government announced a 900 million dinar (~$600 million) stimulus, with 1,000 jobs for Sidi Bouzid alone. The media kept the country in the dark on protests. But it was too late, foreign and social media provided information to Tunisians, and Washington had begun using the term “Arab Spring.”
January 7-8, 2011
Never a strong believer in pluralism, protests had driven Ben Ali to listen to opposition parties and civil society representatives by January 7. La Presse continued its tried and true formula of touting Ben Ali as a champion of education and a promoter of jobs. In the south, the unemployed are offered 20,000 spots in a training program. On the 8th, opposition parties, as well as youth movements, show there support for Ben Ali.
At a moment when things were falling apart, these headlines perhaps show the greatest disconnect between the propaganda machine and current events. While Tunisians never held much faith in their newspapers – except for sports scores and as glass cleaner – these headlines clinched the utter madness of the regime, simply unable to respond to its people.
January 9, 2011
La Presse continues to ignore the situation on the 9th with an article on the banking sector. The corruption in the banking sector had been a major source of frustration for Tunisians under Ben Ali. The middle class were often obliged to pledge loyalty to the regime before being approved for loans. And loans outstanding were used against citizens as a form of control. This aspect of Ennahdha’s platform was an underreported story from October’s elections. Their desire to implement an Islamic finance system was seen as many as a foil against the abuses of the dictatorship.
January 10-11, 2011
By this point, the country was in full scale revolt. Foreigners had started to flee the country en masse. The entirety of the security apparatus was on the streets, with the exception of the military. Rioting and looting, and massive police violence were being reported in the foreign press, especially by AlJazeera. The Tunisia Scenario was being used to describe protests across the Arab world.
La Press called for being civil and good citizens on the 10th. On the 11th, Ben Ali announced the creation of 300,000 new jobs. La Presse also reported that Islamism would not happen in Tunisia.
January 12, 2011
By January 12 the army had been called in to quell the violence. This was seen as an extraordinary measure that would have an important impact on protecting protesters. Many Ben Ali apologists had been shocked that he had used live ammunition on protesters and by calling in the army, he was showing his humanity. La Presse reports little of substance beyond support for the regime – total satisfaction with his recent speech.
January 13, 2011
A day after the army had been called in, it finally appeared in La Presse as if the government had received the message. The people were now in revolt against the police, who they blamed for Bouazizi, relentless harassment, and the use of live ammunition on peaceful protesters. In addition to mobilizing the more pacific army, Ben Ali sacked the former interior minister, replacing him with another party member. Ben Ali also called for freedom of expression – under peaceful means.
January 14, 2011
The day that ended with Ben Ali leaving the country did not begin on an optimistic note. In a speech the previous night, Ben Ali spoke for the first time in Tunisian dialect, with the famous lines, “I understood you, I understood you all.” These lines headlined the issue of La Presse. In a carefully orchestrated propaganda coup, the regime had organized interior ministry minions to drive through the streets after Ben Ali’s speech to show their elation with the president’s speech – another newspaper headline screamed “National Joy!” On a personal level, after having my apartment filled with teargas, running battles down my street, and several deaths in the neighborhood alone, it didn’t quite feel like a national joy. Another day of protests on the 14th would prove that Ben Ali offered too little too late.
As we reflect back on the beginning of the Arab Spring, it is useful to remember the propaganda and to see how far Tunisia has come. These headlines are also a reflection of how much the Arab world has moved on from conventional propaganda pushing media. From social networks to international news channels, the traditional propaganda machines simply cannot compete with news that acknowledges the intelligence of its readers. Perhaps most telling about these headlines, is that the person who most embodies the Tunisian uprising is mentioned but once on the front page of the paper. And yet, by the end of December, he had become a household name. Sometimes the most powerful message is the one that is left unsaid.