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

August 25, 2013

By Yusra Ghannouchi

Labels used by the media when discussing Ennahdha tend to be negative, and positive for their opposition [AFP]

Labels used by the media when discussing Ennahdha tend to be negative, and positive for their opposition [AFP]

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 Ennahdha (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 Ennahdha’s seats in the National Constituent Assembly, with no effort made to inform readers that 41 percent of seats in the Assembly held by Ennahdha 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 Ennahdha: 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. Read more in Al Jazeera.

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