Tunisia: Where was the British media when protestors were being murdered?

Luke Bozier asks why it took the UK media so long to report on the revolution in Tunisia, and why is the focus has been on British tourists, not the situation.

It might not be complete yet, but the Tunisian revolution – the jasmine revolution – has certainly achieved its primary goal: the removal of long-term dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The months ahead will be uncertain, and Western diplomats look on in hope of a peaceful transition to full democracy and the emergence of a new political class.

Since Ben Ali’s final speech as president, last Thursday night, in which he promised to stand down in 2014, the British press has been paying full attention to the situation in Tunisia; senior foreign correspondents, including Lyse Doucet, Adam Mynott and Ben Wederman are now camped out in the capital Tunis. Most news bulletins over the weekend led with stories of revolution and the ensuing looting and internecine violence. The red tops have diligently covered the return of frightened British tourists, sensationally pointing out how lucky they were to get home to safety.

Anyone who has followed my tweets over the last three weeks will know that I have been frustrated at the lack of attention paid by the British press, and the British political class, to the developing tinderbox of a situation in Tunisia. My interest in the Middle East and personal connections to Tunisia itself gave me something of a privileged insight into events there – I was fortunate; if I didn’t have a personal connection with the country I certainly would not have understood the gravity of what was happening, or the seriousness of the human rights violations being carried out by the dying regime.

The British press failed to adequately cover the jasmine revolution, in the way similar events in other countries (Ukraine comes to mind) have been covered in recent years.

Since Ben Ali fled Tunisia on a jet loaded with gold bars on Friday afternoon, a lot of the British press coverage has centred around the interests of Brits in Tunisia. I thought it showed a complete lack of sensitivity when Channel 4 correspondent Johnathan Rugman tweeted that as a revolution was happening “less than three hours from Gatwick” perhaps we should pay a little more attention. His intention may have been worthy, but it shows a dereliction of duty on behalf of some British journalists when they only take interest in a world-changing and lethal series of events simply because they take place in a country in which the British middle class spend their holidays.

Why did it take a full-blown revolution to get the attention of the media? The French press were ahead of the game, with France 24 in particular paying close attention to the unfolding events, giving Tunisia top slot in its news bulletins over a week ago. I almost fell out of bed on Thursday morning to hear BBC Radio 4 discussing the unfolding events in Tunis, asking whether what might be happening might lead to the downfall of the regime. It was not however until Ben Ali announced his intentions, and pled with the Tunisian people for one more chance, that outlets like Sky and the BBC treated the story with the importance it deserved.

Yes British tourists visit Tunisia in droves each year, and we have business interests in the country. But is such selfish national interest the bar to decent coverage nowadays?

British journalism stands up in the world as some of the best, particularly when it comes to coverage of human rights abuses. The Tunisian people might have welcomed a bit more coverage, considering many of them were willing to take to the streets in protests despite the threat of violence or death. Such coverage might have spurred our own Foreign Office ministers and shadow cabinet foreign affairs spokespeople to speak up against the murders of innocent protestors weeks ago, potentially saving lives.

The relative silence in Britain over the last few weeks points to a deeper problem around this country’s relationship with regimes such as that of Ben Ali, who is now in exile. For years the accepted wisdom in Paris, London and Washington DC has been to stay quiet over human rights abuses, deep democratic shortcomings and the silencing of all opposition and free press, in countries like Tunisia (and Libya, Algeria and many others) in return for co-operation and action in the ‘fight against terror’.

The silence on behalf of British politicians has kept Tunisia off the radar for much of the British press, many of whom were until now much more likely to cover protest movements or the killing of protestors in more high-profile places, like Iran for example. It’s shameful that we would consider trading off the rights of another country’s people in return for perceived security gains,
gains which were not at all guaranteed to come from the dictatorship in the first place anyway.

I hope next time, if there is a next time, the British media and political elites pay a little more attention when innocent people are dying in the name of democracy and freedom. That is, after all, what is meant to drive much of our foreign policy. If beacons of democracy like the United Kingdom don’t stand up and speak out, who will?

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.