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Tunisians speaking out as shackles of silence fall

Protestors shout slogans during a demonstration against the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the center of Tunis, Tuesday, Jan. 18. 2011. Four ministers quit Tunisia's day-old government on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime. Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding that the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali. Protestors shout slogans during a demonstration against the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the center of Tunis, Tuesday, Jan. 18. 2011. Four ministers quit Tunisia's day-old government on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime. Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding that the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
By Elaine Ganley
Associated Press / January 19, 2011

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TUNIS, Tunisia—How does it feel to speak your mind in public for the first time -- and make a difference?

Tunisians silenced for the last 23 years are wasting no time finding out, now that the strongman who muzzled the nation has fled.

There is no letup in street protests, partly spurred by Facebook and cell phone mobilization, that helped push President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile. Journalists at a major state-run newspaper have staged a mutiny. Everywhere, people vow to guard their newfound freedom of expression whatever the price.

"The people decided to speak and the people have spoken," said a well-known cartoonist at La Presse, a major state-run daily. Lotfi Ben Sassi helped lead the charge to push the old guard executive editor out the door this week. "I've never lived in a democracy and I'm 51 years old."

There is a pervading sense among Tunisians that they are, at last, on the doorstep of democracy and this opportunity to get it right must not be missed. Street demonstrations small and large, often dispersed in chaos by police firing tear gas, funnel the joy, anger and fear of Tunisians trying to ensure that their "people's revolution" doesn't stop.

Tunisia is a nation of contradictions. With few natural resources and only 10 million people, it has made its population its main resource, developing an educated middle class and strong tourism economy. Few visitors would recognize the repression that kept the nation silent.

Beneath that veneer of stability and modernity, journalists or others who challenged the authorities under Ben Ali faced intimidation, arrest, or worse. Less than two weeks ago, reporters who wrote about police shooting at protesters in the provinces were summoned by communications authorities to answer for their actions.

This North African country, a former French colony where tourists come to soak up the Mediterranean sun, has been turning the pages of history at blinding speed since Friday when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

In the four days that followed, an interim president was named after some stumbling, the nation's first modestly multi-party government was appointed and less than 24 hours later, four ministers resigned amid cries from the street to dismantle the entire system of the former ruling party.

"We don't believe this," said Saida Ferjani, 56, chatting Tuesday at a table in a sidewalk cafe about politics -- impossible under Ben Ali's reign. "We think it's a movie. We feel like we're dreaming .... Before, when we talked, it was quietly at home. We were afraid to express ourselves."

Ferjani, like many others, credits online media and social networks for breaking the barrier of silence.

"It's thanks to the Internet and Facebook that we could topple this government. It's the young who did it," she said.

For weeks, mainstream newspapers and the state-controlled TV and radio paid virtually no attention to riots around the country that preceded Ben Ali's downfall. The protest movement began in a provincial town where a young university graduate set himself on fire Dec. 17 in despair over bleak job prospects.

It spread to other towns as Tunisians were constantly updated via blogs and Facebookers like one called the "Tunisian Girl," photos shot on cell phones and posted online, and satellite TV -- particularly Al-Jazeera. Twitter has made less of an impact and video-sharing YouTube and Daily Motion were censored until last week.

A testimony to the power of bloggers was the appointment Monday of a just-released jailed blogger to the government, Slim Amamou, now minister of youth and sports. He was briefly imprisoned, then freed, in the final days of Ben Ali's regime.

Only a day before fleeing to Saudi Arabia did Ben Ali commit himself to freedom of the press, Internet and expression in general. Too late.

The press watchdog Reports Without Borders has repeatedly listed Ben Ali among the world's 40 top "predators" of the media.

"Journalists and human rights activists are the target of constant bureaucratic harassment, police violence and surveillance by the intelligence services," the group says in its 2010 report. Independent journalists suffered reprisals, and foreign journalists are assigned minders by a regime "almost obsessive about control of news and information."

Such pressures were a daily reality for journalists at the state-run paper La Presse. Inspired by the new climate, they revolted and dismissed their boss, Gawhar Chatty, and set up their own interim committee to run the paper.

When Chatty showed up at the office Monday after a call advising him to stay home, cartoonist Lotfi marched into his office for the final farewell.

"We informed him (by phone) that we're taking charge of the paper and if he comes in we'll break his face, excuse the expression," managing editor Faouzie Mezzi told AP Television News.

The other leading French language paper, Le Temps, tried to save its honor in its Friday edition, out before news of Ben Ali's quick exit -- conceding that there has been a "system within a system ... a hidden lock" that kept journalists from doing their job.

The transition from silent fear to speaking out isn't automatic for everyone, and some Tunisians still prefer the shadow of anonymity or whispers.

"We made a revolution in a month and in six days we can't all demonstrate," said a woman calling herself only Malika, worried about the repercussions of having her full name published.

Facebook sites remain mostly anonymous, often using a version of the red and white Tunisian flag as a profile picture. But they have friends: 380,742 on Tuesday for a page calling itself "RCD Get Out," a reference to Ben Ali's party. Other Tunisian Facebook sites attract similar numbers.

Yes, says Ferjani, the housewife, "We're happy and we're free."

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APTN reporter Nicolas Garriga in Tunis contributed to this report.

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