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Cablegate: Embassy Engages Tunisian Journalists On World Press

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Embassy Engages Tunisian Journalists on World Press
Freedom Day

Refs: Rabat 1045

1. (SBU) Summary: On the occasion of World Press Freedom
Day, the Embassy, with financial and logistical support from
Internews, provided training for over 70 Tunisian
journalists on the issue of on-line journalism. On May 3,
the Embassy hosted a small hands-on workshop, led by
American expert Gary Kebbel, which dealt with the subject of
news websites, providing practical advice on the financing
and maintenance of websites that are connected to printed
press media. On May 4, the Embassy hosted a half-day
seminar on on-line journalism; over 60 Tunisian journalists
used this opportunity to better understand the opportunities
and challenges presented by the Internet, as well as to
debate the current lack of press freedom in the country.
All the major Tunisian dailies and weeklies provided
positive coverage of the May 4 event, reaching over 200,000
Tunisian readers. These two events, financed by Internews,
enabled the USG to reach out to Tunisian journalists on a
symbolically important day. Action request for NEA/PI in
Para 8. End Summary.

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May 3 Workshop
2.(U) On May 3, the Embassy hosted 12 Tunisian journalists
who participated in a workshop on "Newspaper Websites."
Gary Kebbel, the founding editor of USA TODAY.com and
Newsweek.com, facilitated the workshop. The 12 journalists
represented all of the mainstream dailies and weeklies
(except for one) as well as representatives from the
opposition press, a banned on-line newspaper (connected to a
local human rights group) and a representative of the
government external communication agency. Kebbel reviewed
such practical issues as financial support for newspaper
websites, the interplay between the written product and its
online image, the need for continual update and creativity,
and ways to attract readers. The journalists also asked
Kebbel to review their existing websites and to provide
pointed recommendations on how to improve them. They were
so engaged in their work that they willingly agreed to work
through lunch and past the announced end of the session.

May 4 On-line Journalism Conference
--------------------------------------------- -
3.(U) On May 4, the Embassy hosted a conference at a Tunis
hotel on the subject of "On-line Journalism." The
conference was divided into two parts, one session on "On-
line journalism vs. Traditional journalism" and another on
"The Ethics of On-Line Journalism." Gary Kebbel and a
Tunisian expert, Sadok Hammami, facilitated the discussions.
Ambassador William Hudson provided opening remarks in which
he reviewed the impact of the Internet on media around the
world and also underlined U.S. commitment to freedom of
expression worldwide, citing the text of A/S Boucher's
statement for World Press Freedom Day.

4.(SBU) Given the lack of a local partner and a flurry of
competing press activities during this week, we hoped for
forty participants but prepared ourselves for fewer. We
were therefore pleasantly surprised to welcome over 60
Tunisian journalists to the conference. These journalists
again represented all tendencies, including the government
and opposition press, journalism professors and students,
human rights activists, and on-line journalists.

5.(SBU) Many of these journalists used the conference to
open a debate on press freedom in the country. One
journalist noted that the most-widely read Tunisian
newspaper is actually an on-line paper (Tunisnews), the
website of which is blocked in the country. Pro-government
journalists angrily responded that such websites are owned
and manipulated by extremists. In response to Hammami's
assertion that the Internet represents an evolution in the
media, another journalist replied that, while that might be
true in the west, it was not true for Tunisia. The
journalist explained that if a country had a free and
responsible printed press, then dealing with the freedom of
the Internet was a logical next step. But, he argued,
Tunisia was moving from an environment of tightly-
controlled written media to a forum that provided for
unlimited freedom. This, he argued, was a revolution, not
an evolution. Another journalist wryly noted that while
Iraq had the Oil-for-Food program, Tunisian journalists
lived the Silence-for-Food program in which they exchanged
self-censorship for a paycheck. It was notable that many
of these journalists spoke so openly about the lack of
freedom of the press in an open forum that was on the
record. (Comment. Their courage in doing so represents an
important evolution in the Tunisian media scene. End

Positive reaction, tinged with frustration
--------------------------------------------- ----
6. (SBU) All of the journalists who attended the May 3 event
thanked us for providing practical training on ways to
enhance their newspaper's online websites. One journalist
at a Tunisian weekly promised to completely overhaul the
current website to apply the lessons taught by Gary Kebbel.
The May 4 event was equally popular, as evidenced by the
unprecedented wide and positive coverage of an Embassy event
for journalists. Several of the journalists present noted
that it was symbolically important for the USG to hold such
an event around World Press Freedom Day, and one journalists
thanked us for providing a forum in which Tunisian
journalists could speak at ease about the issues that
trouble them. All of the journalists were impressed at the
quality, experience, and diplomacy exhibited by Gary Kebbel.
The main criticism that we heard of the two events was an
inherent sense of frustration on the part of Tunisian
journalists who are eager to apply what they learned in
these two sessions but are challenged by what one termed
"the Tunisian reality." As some noted, most Tunisian
journalists do not own computers nor do they have access to
the Internet at work. And when they do, they are frustrated
to find some sites, including the banned Tunisian online
websites, blocked by the government.

Positive role of Internews
7.(U) These programs would not have been possible without
Internews financial cooperation. In addition to helping to
identify a top-notch American expert, Internews paid for all
of the expenses associated with both the workshop and the
conference. Internews' continued engagement with Tunisian
press has been an important component of our outreach to
journalists. During both sessions, Internews
representative Valerie Rowles provided the participants with
useful insight into her organization's experience in
supporting journalists around the world and indicated their
willingness to continue engagement with Tunisians. At the
end of the May 4 conference, journalists waited to speak to
her about their ideas for possible future areas of

Request to do more
8. (SBU) It is clear that the subject of on-line journalism
allows us to accomplish several of our goals: to attract a
large and varied number of journalists to our programs, to
provide practical training in an area not widely understood,
and to enable us to engage on the issues of free and
responsible press in a way that is not threatening to either
the GOT or the journalists themselves. The upcoming WSIS
conference in November provides further incentive for us to
engage with journalists on this subject. We therefore would
request that additional funds be made available for
Internews to cooperate with us on a week-long training
session in the fall that, modeled on the recent program in
Morocco (Reftel), would provide Tunisian journalists with
the tools to set up their own websites and learn how to
manage posted information in a responsible and free manner.

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