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The media and its role in spreading a dichotomous narrative in Tunisia

January 27, 2014 at 1:23 pm

To focus on media coverage of the tumultuous convulsions through which post-revolution countries are going may seem a luxury in the current crisis. Yet an analysis of the role of the media in shaping popular perceptions of the Arab Spring revolutions, of their progress through the transition, and of attempts to reverse them is a necessary step to navigate through coverage of these events and to understand internal and external positions on the Arab Spring and its fate.

Over the last two years, a clear framework was set up for reporting on Islamists in power in Tunisia that is reductionist, stereotypical and devoid of nuance: The allegedly exogenous inspiration of Islamists is emphasised repeatedly while indigenous roots and distinct evolution are ignored. Ideological polarisation is exaggerated by cloaking every possible political, social, economic or cultural issue in the reductionist islamist-secularist dichotomy while ignoring other more insightful dimensions. Real and illusory examples of polarisation are highlighted while downplaying real instances of coalition, cooperation and exchange.

The labels “Islamist government” and even “MB government” (yes, in Tunisia) are often used by otherwise serious media, while little effort is made to inform readers that the Islamist Al-Nahda (no space here to discuss the “islamist” label itself) holds less than a third of ministries (down from 40 percent in the Jebali government, and having conceded all key ministries in the reshuffle) and that it is in a coalition with two secular parties which hold 20 percent of ministries (down from 30 percent in the previous government) and that no less than 48 percent of cabinet members are independents. The generously used “dominant” label is also repeatedly used to describe Al-Nahda’s seats in the National Constituent Assembly, with no effort made to inform readers that 41 percent of seats in the Assembly held by Al-Nahda also applies to its representation in each of the Assembly’s constitutional, legislative and special committees as well as to the percentage of those committees headed by Al-Nahda: ie the balanced and inclusive composition of every aspect of the Assembly is rarely if ever highlighted, as it breaks the “dominance” narrative.

Contrasting labels

Having set up the above framework where the key words are “islamist”, “dominance” and “polarisation” while “dialogue”, “compromise” and “coalition” are avoided and downplayed, each crisis has the narrative to follow readily drawn: each crisis is approached through stories peppered with: Islamist “rigidity”, “dominance”, “inflexibility”, “intransigence”, versus opposition “challenging”, “braving”, “struggling”, “daring”, “mobilising”, “uniting” against the reduced Islamist enemy. Coalitions are ignored or undermined, joint initiatives bringing together governing parties and opposition parties are ignored, differences within the opposition are ignored. Anything that disturbs the narrative of Islamists against everybody else is conveniently discarded or downplayed.

Islamists are always “arrogant”, “stubborn”, “inflexible”, “radical” – and when eventually the reduction breaks down as the latter end up resolving the crisis through concessions, these concessions must always be presented as “forced” rather than “chosen”, won by the united resolute powerful opposition. No mention is made of Islamist conciliatory statements before the elections and ever since, their openness to dialogue and to compromise for the sake of avoiding the prolongation of  the transition period. And all these dialectics must always be presented not as normal political negotiations that take place in all political processes, but as something peculiar to the existential  “Islamist-secularist” struggle.

A defining narrative

That narrative is faithfully followed in the current crisis: the misrepresentation of the nature of the government and the assembly continue, as well as the misrepresentation of the Constitution and of the entire transition process. Achievements are neglected and shortcomings are magnified. Progress is belittled and challenges are exaggerated. We are repeatedly told that “there’s still no constitution” and not told a draft was ready over a year ago, and that after successive internal and external consultations (implies inclusiveness so must be ignored) the fourth draft has already been presented to the Assembly for amendments and approval.

We are told that “points of disagreement on certain articles persist” but not told that several national dialogue sessions led to agreement on most critical points and that some of the opposition leaders now disowning the Assembly and the Constitution had a few weeks previously publicly and strongly praised the very same Constitution draft. We are repeatedly told that “no date has been set for the elections” but rarely if ever told that a timetable has indeed been adopted by the Assembly and that the latter has elected 8 out of 9 members of the Electoral Commission tasked with preparing for the elections.

No precision or nuance is attempted: they must be avoided at all cost to preserve the stereotype of “isolated Islamists” and “united powerful opposition”. Thus news agencies must devote new dispatches to any statement implying divergences within the governing coalition, while any joint statements must be quietly overlooked. We are told that 70 deputies have withdrawn from the Assembly (some serious media even wrongly report “resignations”), but not told that partial lists of even below that number have been challenged by deputies whose names have been incorrectly included, and we must not be told that after being repeatedly requested and challenged to produce an official confirmed list of even 60 alleged withdrawn members, their “representatives” decline.

We are told that “the opposition demands the dissolution of the Assembly and the government”, with no distinction between the many diverse initiatives with varying stances on those two bodies. And of course the demands of “the opposition” must never be analysed too closely: the logic of dissolving the Assembly to solve the difficulties and slowness of the transition must not be questioned, and no mention should be made of the fact that while “the opposition” mobilise their supporters through radical calls for the Assembly’s dissolution, these radical demands are often conveniently omitted or severely downplayed in foreign media interviews (magically turning into “dissolution in 6-8 months after adopting the constitution and electoral law”).

Assigning narratives

Expectedly, reporting on the crisis focuses on the country’s largest party. Again, reporting sticks faithfully to all the above reductions, exaggerations and omissions. Thus the BBC refers to Al-Nahda Party as “the Muslim Brotherhood”, and many media refer to “the Islamist government”, versus “the secular opposition”. Echoing reporting on Egypt, Al-Nahda must be presented as “rigid”, “inflexible”, “uncompromising”; anything that implies “openness” or “inclusiveness” must be carefully undermined. Al-Nahda must be blamed for any delay in the dialogue. It is its “red lines” that obstruct, not “the opposition’s” condition that the coalition must accept the dissolution of the government before the beginning of dialogue – and of course no one should ask what would be negotiated then? Clear detailing of Al-Nahda’s vision for resolving the crisis must be presented as “forcing” a rigid vision, while the opposition’s stating of radical demands must never be presented in the same way. Any statements that suggest “rigidity” and “intransigence” must be at once highlighted and exaggerated, such as the Al-Nahda president’s reference to far-leftist parties’ call for imposing parallel alternative popular committees to current governors as councillors, as “old anarchist Marxist fantasies” which must be misreported by agencies as referring to all calls for dissolving the government.

Of course, all conciliatory statements emphasising openness to dialogue with all must not be highlighted or put in the context of similar calls throughout the last two years. That would break the required stereotype and must be avoided at all cost. And when those statements turn into real gestures and meetings which can no longer be ignored, the narrative must adapt – but only slightly: it is not that Islamists want dialogue, but it is because the ever-powerful and united brave resolute opposition have triumphed and forced the hands of the weak, divided and isolated Islamists. Dialogue and compromise must then be described as a “turnaround”, “a radical shift”, “a defeat” – but of course the same must never be applied to “the opposition” should they ever give up any demands or accept to sit for dialogue.

The above reductions deliberately distort Al-Nahda’s discourse by focusing on one of two twin elements it believes in and reiterates in discourse and action: that the management of the transition phase requires two important and necessary elements: democratic electoral legitimacyand the constant seeking of broad national consensus. The media loves to emphasise the former while undermining the latter. Moreover, it is not only Al-Nahda’s discourse and actions that are distorted, but more seriously the entire political class, by failing to present a more nuanced picture of the diversity within “secularists” and discern diversity within “the opposition”, thus undermining the inclusive “Tunisian model” that many Tunisians on “both sides” are striving, against all odds, to sustain and to ensure its success.

Yusra Ghannouchi is the international spokesperson for the Tunisian Al-Nahdha Party. She is active in bridge building between different communities, interfaith dialogue, advocacy for the rights of Muslim Women and has lectured internationally on these topics. She is currently completing her PhD on Nineteenth-Century Gender Reform at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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