Sami Ben Gharbia – Nawaat11 September 2020
Giving voice to the voiceless
An award-winning independent media website with a reputation for analysing and deconstructing the stories of the day is the go-to news platform for anyone with an interest in understanding today’s Tunisia.
Nawaat has been a long and intense journey for Tunisian human rights activist, blogger and writer Sami Ben Gharbia. When he co-founded the blog that was the precursor to today’s tri-lingual collective news platform, he was a political refugee in the Netherlands, where he lived from 1998 to 2011.
Speaking to EED from Nawaat’s office in Tunis, Ben Gharbia recalls that the blog was formed in 2004 to give voice to exiled Tunisian dissidents and to provide a free space for debate. From the beginning, it included posts written in both French and Arabic and it was targeted at a Tunisian audience hungry for alternative opinions. The blog’s authors began to write posts in English early in Nawaat’s history as they also wanted to reach more international readers.
In those days, Tunisians had to be tech-savvy to read Nawaat; as the site was officially blocked in Tunisia, it could only be accessed via proxies or VPNs. In fact, the blog only became widely accessible within the country after the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution of 2011.
Ben Gharbia recalls the heady days of the revolution as an intense period for the team of bloggers.
“The blog played an important role of countering the propaganda of the Ben Ali regime. We worked with cyber-activists from around the globe to make sure it was available on multiple platforms, which made it more difficult for the authorities to block. Between the 17th December 2010 and the 14th January 2011, we republished videos filmed by activists on the country-wide protests.”
Nawaat set up a website, Tunileaks, that widely distributed the trove of U.S. State Department cables published on Wikileaks to Tunisian citizens. The cables showed that the U.S. viewed the then Tunisian President Ben Ali as a corrupt and brutal tyrant, that human rights abuses in the country were worsening and that they believed the deep structural economic and social problems in the country would be only be resolved with the departure of Ben Ali.
The blog’s coverage of the revolution was widely applauded, and they received several international awards the following year from organisations such as Reporters without Borders, the Index of Censorship and the Digital Power Index.
Ben Gharbia admits that, upon his return from exile in 2011, he and the other blog co-founders were unsure if Nawaat still had a role to play in the post-revolutionary reality. In the end, they decided that Nawaat was a valid medium to train activists, but that it should evolve into a more professional online news platform with a team of journalists. Today, Nawaat is unique in the Tunisian media scene in that it is run as an associative media, headed by an NGO, of which Ben Gharbia is also Secretary General.
This governance structure is important to the outlet. Unlike most other media in Tunisia, which are closely aligned to political and business figures, Nawaat remains fiercely independent and this has meant that it enjoys high levels of trust from Tunisians and international readers alike.
“We have good contacts with the authorities but we also have strong links on the ground and with activists. We work closely with local NGOs too. When there are events in regions outside of Tunis, we are often the only media that are allowed to come to these places and live among the people. We give voice to the voiceless. They trust us as they know we will make sure their voices are heard,” he says.
Ben Gharbia sees funding from the European Endowment for Democracy as a new adventure for the digital media outlet as it continues to evolve and seeks to attract younger and more digital-native audiences. As part of the EED grant, Nawaat is setting up a number of short-term residences which they have labelled ‘Innawaation’ as a new creative media project incubator for the outlet. EED has also provided funding for a new office space to house these initiatives.
Of the three current residences, one is working to develop virtual reality material to highlight the plight of disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Tunis and is training the team to use this software. Another residency is with an anonymous activist-cartoonist named ‘Z’ who is producing ‘psycaricatures’ of political personalities, with a planned exhibition at the end of the year. And the third residency will produce a documentary of a coffee-house on the Algerian-Tunisian border telling the story of the city and its people through the voices of the coffee-house regulars.
Today, Nawaat also publishes the only French-language alternative magazine in Tunisia, Nawaat Magazine, a quarterly publication focused on politics, socio-economic and environmental issues and the cultural world. The magazine can be purchased in bookstores throughout Tunisia and is posted to subscribers worldwide.
Ben Gharbia is confident that Nawaat can continue to play an important role in Tunisia’s media scene. He notes that a recent restructuring has meant that the journalistic team now have a greater role in the shaping the future of the organisation; now in his early 50s, he thinks it is important to have a new generation on board.
He notes that Nawaat often have exclusive access to key political figures; they were the first to obtain an exclusive interview with the current president during the election period.
As part of its ambitions to target 18 to 25-year old, in addition to the outlet’s usual audience of ‘engaged citizens’ in the 25 to 60-year old group, Nawaat is now developing a new YouTube show with ‘explainer’ clips on topical issues presented by a young highly popular YouTube influencer.
But most importantly, he cites the months of the Covid-19 lockdown as evidence of the team’s tenacity in a time of crisis.
“We quickly moved to remote working and our output almost doubled during the period. In May alone, we published 90 stories, up from our usual average of 50 or so. We produced lots of films too with our teams interviewing people across the country who were affected by Covid-19. We also created a fact-checking product where we debunked the deluge of false news that was circulating on social media,” he explains.
Ben Gharbia believes that Nawaat’s model remains highly relevant to Tunisia today with the October 2019 election of new President Kais Saied.
“The close relationships between many media and business and politics have impacted on people’s trust of the media. We are not an outlet that breaks news stories. We don’t do daily news updates. Our job is to deconstruct the news, to contextualise what is happening in the country. People believe in what we do as we help them understand what is really going on,” he concludes.