Journalists born of the revolution

Tunisian journalists now cover news in ways that were unthinkable under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who presided over decades of state censorship, coercion and corruption of media.

TUNIS // It was 9am at the office of Tunisia Live, a start-up Tunisian news website, and writer Rabii Kalboussi was halfway through his first story of the day. He was sitting at a table with five other writers, compiling news stories from other local media.

"My first story today ... is a conference on the electoral process," he said. "I read the article, then I translate from Arabic and reformulate it, considering the audience of Tunisia Live: the English-speaking world."

Kalboussi, 23, and his colleagues were young, inexperienced and operating on a shoestring budget. But fuelled by ample enthusiasm, they represented Tunisia's first generation of post-dictatorship journalists.

The brainchild of Zied Mhirsi, 33, a doctor-turned-media entrepreneur, and colleagues, Tunisia Live was the country's only news outlet offering local coverage in English to an international audience.

The fledgling enterprise needed investment, Mhirsi said. For now, a sideline in "fixing" - offering visiting foreign reporters assistance including translation, logistics and media consulting - provided cash while offering writers experience with seasoned journalists.

That business model was unthinkable under president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose removal in January ended decades of state censorship, coercion and corruption of media.

A fluent English-speaker, who spent four years studying and working at the University of Washington in Seattle, Mhirsi was swept up in a foreign media blitz on Tunisia that followed Mr Ben Ali's departure on January 14.

After weeks of helping foreign journalists get their bearings, Mhirsi and fellow fixers "realised that Tunisians weren't writing in English", he said. "I was sensitive to the issue of communicating in English because I'd always felt my country was isolated."

In April, Mhirsi launched Tunisia Live with co-founders Youssef Gaiji and Ramla Jaber.

Among the first recruits was Sadok Ayari, 26, who now sets the daily news agenda. Arriving each day at 7am, he scavenged the Tunisian press for articles to translate.

"For example, today's top story is on human-rights training for police," he said. "For years, they didn't even have a concept of human rights. Now they're getting a human-rights dimension. We're not used to that."

Meanwhile, Kalboussi polished off his article on the electoral process and begun pulling together news reports about Hizb Attahrir, a hard-line Islamist party.

"In the future I'd like to do what news agencies are doing," he said. "To call people, to attend conferences and events - to become a source of news."

Mhirsi was also looking forward to that day, he said. Tunisia Live's offices were decorated with inspirational sayings about journalism.

Beside the whiteboard where Mr Ayari writes the daily schedule was a quote from Burton Rascoe, a 20th-century American editor: "A news sense is really a sense of what is important, what is vital, what has colour and life - what people are interested in. That's journalism."

However, the most pressing need of Tunisia Live's 20-odd writers was practical experience, said Mhirsi.

"Skills in English, in writing, in learning to observe and analyse," he said. "They have a lot of passion, they put in a lot of hours, but they need proper training."

That need was met partly by fixing for foreign media.

"I began fixing even before I came here," said Asma Ghribi, 24, a graduate student in cultural studies who had worked for Al Jazeera English following the revolution. Since joining Tunisia Live in April, she has focused increasingly on original video reports, while continuing to fix for the foreign media who make up Tunisia Live's client base.

"When you're a fixer you have to obey and listen to what journalists want," she said. "Reporting for Tunisia Live, I'm my own master. This is the best part. You become aware of the privilege you have as a reporter."

Ghribi was seated at a table with Ayari and their colleague Malak Somai, 26, working out the trilingual text of a video urging viewers to vote on questions for a political interview show.

"Something imperative," Ayari said, as they tried out phrases in Tunisia's Arabic dialect. "How about, 'Choose the questions that you want to ask'?"

"No, that doesn't capture it," Ghribi said. "Try, 'Choose the questions you like'."

Finally they settled on, "Vote for the questions you like."

They fell to reminiscing about January 14. Ayari remembered a starry night - "A beautiful night for a revolution," he said.

For Mhirsi, Tunisia Live was positioned to document the effects of Tunisia's revolution - among them the burst of free expression that has made such enterprises possible.

However, it remained to be seen whether hard work and passion will translate to profitability.

"We're jumping into the unknown," Mhirsi said. "We're doing this as long as it can sustain itself. And if it can't, it will still have been a good adventure."

Published: August 22, 2011 04:00 AM


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