February 27, 2021, became a “black Saturday” which will not easily be forgotten by the Tunisian journalists who were present that day to cover the march of the Ennahda Movement, Tunisia’s ruling party, on Avenue Mohammed V in Tunis. The manifestation saw numerous violent incidents, both physical and verbal, targeting members of the press.
In addition, the Organizing Committee of the Ennahda Movement’s March (OCEMM) clearly harassed female journalists and violated their dignity, in full view of the security forces and Ennahda supporters. Wearing their typical blue vests, the committee members assumed the role of the country’s security forces, in its worst and most malevolent form.
The violence and harassment in dealing with journalists, especially female ones, was especially bad at the moment of arrival of the movement’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi. Female journalists were forcibly prevented from approaching the stage on which Ghannouchi held his speech.
“One of the women supporters of the movement told me literally: ‘You are the media of shame…We pay you from our money, and you use the pulpit to insult us.”
“Despite having told them I am a journalist and wearing a special jacket with “PRESS” on it, I was prevented from advancing to the main stage and was besieged to the point of suffocation.” Jehan Alouane from Radio Tunis told Daraj.
Members of the organizing committee deliberately stuck around Alouane. When she asked one of them to have some respect and stop harassing her, he told her: “Stand in the women’s area. Why do you insist on standing here? Go there!”
Alouane ignored him and told him she was only doing her job and that she will stand where she saw fit. In addition to being harassed, she was verbally assaulted more than once.
“One of the women supporters of the movement told me literally: ‘You are the media of shame.’” Alouane said. “You have brought this on yourselves. We pay you from our money, and you use the pulpit to insult us.”
“Media of shame” has been a commonly used phrase by Ennahda Movement supporters, members and deputies ever since the “attack on TV” they carried out on February 24, 2012.
Some 3,000 Ennahdha supporters and Salafists protested in front of the State TV headquarters at the time, demanding “objectivity and impartiality” in dealing with political and social issues.
“Indeed, today I felt fear and an enormous amount of hatred towards journalists,” Alouane said. “The supporters are accusing us of criticizing and demonizing the movement while we came to cover this event just like any other event. I have covered dozens of marches and protests for years, but never have I felt the fear and intimidation that I felt while covering the Ennahda Movement’s march today. ”
“Making Us Pay” Lamia (a pseudonym), a journalist working for a private radio station, said she and the photojournalist accompanying her, were provoked near the stage as soon as they arrived.
From the moment she took out her microphone bearing the badge of the radio she works for, she felt trapped by the members of the organizing committee. Yet, she ignored them and still managed to do some hard-fought interviews.
“As they were forcing their bodies against mine, pushing me from side to side with the microphone in my hand, I was sure they were making us pay for the radio commentators who mock and criticize them,” she said. “However, I’m not one of them. I am a news reporter. Yet, they did not differentiate.”
Someone wearing the committee’s blue jacket, forcibly held Lamia by her chest. She said he grabbed her at a place that hurt, so she would not advance towards the stage but withdraw in silence. Instead she shouted from pain, and he let her go.
When the march had ended, Lamia spent the night with her eyes wide open until the next morning. She felt extremely frustrated. The idea of reporting from the field again terrified her.
“I did not get any sleep that night and, to be honest, I became terrified of practicing the profession outside the walls of the studio,” she said. “I probably will not be reporting from the field again.”
“Falling in Line” Amira Mohammed, Vice-President of the Tunisian Press Syndicate, told Daraj: “What happened to journalists were all kinds of assaults and sexual harassment in order to intimidate them and prevent them, again, from doing their job objectively, which is an explicit call to fall in line, or else their fate will be even worse than what happened on Saturday.”
It also announced it would file charges against all assailants, headed by members of the Ennahda organizing committee, who acted militia-like and violated the laws that guarantee press freedom.
The syndicate assigned its legal staff to take the necessary measures to track down the aggressors, despite the “continuing state of impunity and lack of commitment and action on cases of assault against journalists.”
The Public Media Alliance, which is affiliated with the Tunisian General Labor Union also issued a statement denouncing the practices, considering them a dangerous precedent violating the right of journalists to work freely without restrictions.
The alliance stressed that press freedom is an irreversible gain for Tunisia, and that the work of a journalist should not be subject to censorship. It also called for an immediate investigation in order to hold the perpetrators accountable.
A Hand on her Hip
Yusra Riahi, who is a journalist for Business News, was also subjected to sexual harassment near the stage.
“I saw you in a hysterical state when they pulled you out of the middle, and at first I did not understand the reason for your anger, but when I went in there to substitute you, I understood you were in hell,” she said.
We met in the corridor. While she was in a hurry to go in to cover the remainder of Rached Ghannouchi’s speech, I was in a hurry to save myself after all the pushing and cursing I had been subjected to.
One member of the organizing Committee had brazenly placed his hand on Yusra’s left hip and held her firmly. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she yelled at him.
Yusra is also very frustrated about what happened and she too is considering whether or not to take to the field again.
“I saw you in a hysterical state when they pulled you out of the middle, and at first I did not understand the reason for your anger, but when I went in there to substitute you, I understood you were in hell.”
In a video she posted on Facebook, she spoke about the harassment of female journalists, which caused an uproar and was widely reported by media in Tunisia and abroad.
Following the press syndicate’s second statement, which demanded the Ennahdha Movement to apologize, the latter issued a brief four-line statement saying: “These transgressions do not represent us. These actions were committed in a private capacity, and we apologize for them.”
Photojournalist Salma Al-Qizani of the La Presse newspaper said the apology did not comfort her. Nor did it restore her dignity.
“’Go back home. What brought you here?’ the guy told me while putting his hand on my body left and right,” she said. “I was confused and torn between protecting myself and getting him away from me, as well as protecting another young journalist. I did not want her to go through what I had gone through.”
Amidst this blackest of scenes, the security forces played an extremely negative role, as they did not intervene to rescue any female journalists who were crying for help right before their eyes. It seems the Ennahda Movement achieved its goal of spreading terror in the hearts of female journalists, so that they feel frustrated and afraid, thus making press coverage more difficult. Is it enough for the ruling party to apologize with a few lines? Will its leaders and representatives stop spreading hate speech against the media and journalists? For it is their inflammatory speech that is primarily responsible for what happened on “black Saturday,” February 27, 2021.
This report was translated from Arabic to English by Rita Khadra.