They say a lie can be half way around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on. As the murder of leftist politician Chokri Belaid and the subsequent resignation of the prime minister last month left Tunisians reeling in shock, a number of exaggerated news reports with shaky sourcing seemed designed to feed fears of a breakdown in security nationwide.
As with all the best disinformation, the news items were based on a real phenomenon: even before the January 2011 revolution, some Tunisian activists, mainly young Salafists, engaged in “armed jihad” abroad. Belaid had been an outspoken critic of the moderate Islamist party Nahda, which for the previous year had headed a three-party coalition government. He was among those Tunisians who charged that Nahda was being lax with Salafist extremists. Many Tunisians believed the obvious culprits in his killing were such extremists; some even claimed that Nahda itself could have ordered the assassination.
In this fraught political atmosphere, an example of hype disguised as news circulated six days after Belaid’s assassination. The popular Shems FM radio station reported on its website on February 12 that Tunisian Salafist preacher Abou Iyadh had summoned home from the Syrian war no fewer than 12,000 fighters. The average Tunisian, if not immediately discounting the story, could assume that the returning Salafist jihadist would soon be sowing mayhem across Tunisia. The Shems FM website sourced the information to the Algerian daily newspaper Echorouk. The story drew 2,800 Facebook ‘likes’ before, ignored by other media, it sank without trace. The next day, a correspondent for Express FM radio, speaking from the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, breathlessly reported that Tunisian fighters accounted for more than half of the 132 people killed by the Syrian air force when it bombarded an area near Aleppo airport on February 12. The story lost nothing in the re-telling: relayed by news website Kapitalis, the figure grew to more than 100 Tunisians killed. A subsequent news report lowered the casualty number to two named men, aged 29 and 40, from the Sidi Bouzid area; a relative of one confirmed that under the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Tunisia for militant Salafist activities. Two unnamed men from the Ettadhamun neighborhood of Tunis were also reported killed.
The following week, the theme continued. An unnamed Algerian “security official” was quoted by Turkey’s Andalou news agency on February 18 as saying that more than 300 Tunisian jihadists were heading home from northern Mali to mount “armed activities” in Tunisia. Tunisia’s security forces had asked their Algerian counterparts for help in tracking down the returning jihadists, he said. On the same day, Algeria’s El Fajr newspaper incorrectly reported that Tunisian human rights minister Samir Dilou had, along with the US-based NGO Freedom House, sponsored a program to train 200 Algerian activists in how to administer revolutions. Dilou issued a formal denial.
This isn’t to say that jihadists aren’t an issue in Tunisia. Facebook pages of local Salafists groups have through 2012 carried tributes, sometimes with photographs, to Tunisian “martyrs” in Syria. Estimates as to how many Tunisians have recently left the country to fight in Libya, Syria or Mali range wildly, from a few hundred to a few thousand. Whatever the number, this phenomenon of Tunisians fighting as combatants abroad — whether it is a flow of volunteers or just a trickle — must be of some concern to those who wish to see a peaceful and prosperous Tunisia.
Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has said that “all Tunisians have a right to travel” and that would-be jihadists could therefore not be stopped from leaving the country. The interior ministry appears to take the same stance. But Ghannouchi did express disquiet that returning battle-hardened combatants might bring with them new problems.
Another story, meanwhile, received curiously little attention. When Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal declared in January that no fewer than 11 of the 32 hostage-takers at the In Amenas gas field in eastern Algeria had been Tunisian, the news was given minimal coverage in Tunisia. During this difficult transition to democracy, the truth is, indeed, still getting its boots on.
Eileen Byrne reports from Tunis for the London-based Guardian and The Sunday Times