Creating an Open Tunisia

Submitted on Fri, August 31, 2012

Before the January, 2011 Tunisian revolution, open government and accountability were distant concepts in Tunisia. Under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, political information was extremely inaccessible—and when it was provided, the information was often censored and biased. As a result, a disconnect developed between citizens and their political knowledge. Even as revolution pushed their country towards democracy, many citizens remained uniformed about their government’s leaders and policies. At the same time, the Parliament struggled to embrace open government practices. If Tunisian citizens are expected to “guide their government…[down] a path towards transparency and openness,” as Mabrouka M’Barek, Constituent Assembly member, said, Tunisians must be fully informed and engaged.

Last year, the initiative Marsad, which means “observatory” of the Parliament, was founded to increase citizens’ political knowledge and to ensure Tunisian government transparency and accountability. Feeding off citizen’s eagerness to understand their transforming country and politicians’ emerging comfort with transparency, Marsad’s website offers public access to government data and documents such as Parliament voting records, committee memberships, open government policy proposals, and information on Parliament Members. With support from Ashoka Fellows Gregor Hackmack and Klaas Glenewinkel, it plans to develop a citizen-politician public dialogue forum, so people can ask politicians questions and hold them accountable to their commitments. In a country with a history of corruption, oppression, and political manipulation, this sort of work isn’t easy. Nabil Yahyaoui, a founding member of Marsad and a technology developer for the website, talks about the challenges:  


Challenge: Promoting Government Transparency 

“The world expects Tunisia’s government to become more open, but the switch from a culture of government secrecy to transparency won’t happen overnight,” Nabil Yahyaoui says. Marsad founder and Nabil’s sister, Amira Yahyaoui, has collaborated with representatives of three other citizen-sector groups on an open government and open data campaign. In May they asked the President of the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, for the Assembly to publish committee reports and voting records. Jaafar promised to make the changes and said, according to Yahyaoui, “‘It wasn’t the Assembly’s intention to restrict the public from accessing information—it was simply a matter of a lack of capacity.’” But the changes were never made. Marsad and the other campaign members are suing for the Assembly’s failure to abide by a 2011 law that establishes the right of access to administrative documents. The lawsuit, filed with the Administrative Court of Tunisia, has pushed the Constituent Assembly to partner with UN development programs to support their transparency efforts.

Meanwhile, Marsad is pressing for greater accessibility of parliamentary voting records. “In our parliament [citizens] can’t access voting records. They are not available in any form.” Marsad’s ingenious solution: In a recent vote, Marsad took screenshots of the Constituent Assembly’s livestream (shown in the image above). When a MP voted, a lightbulb would flash either red or green to show his decision. Marsad staff and employees used screenshots to match the lightbulb colors to their respective MPs. After hours of tedious work, Marsad delivered the complete record of the vote to the public on their website. 


Challenge: Increasing Information Accessibility  

Thirty-six percent of Tunisia’s population lives in rural areas. While technology played a crucial role in connecting citizens during the revolution, many rural people and disadvantaged groups do not have access to the Internet, leaving them uniformed about Tunisia’s politics and current events. Marsad knows that rural communities seek and share news via radio, so it is partnering with local groups to distribute information on Tunisian politics through community radio networks. “When the new constitution is released over the coming weeks, we will broadcast over the radio to inform people of their rights and how the articles of the constitution directly relate to them. People have potential to do great things with information, but the information hasn’t been there,” Yahyaoui says. 


Challenge: Improving Media Quality 

Before the overthrow of President Ben Ali in 2011, the Tunisian media produced content that was uniform, censored, and often biased. Since the revolution, journalists are now “free,” yet many lack knowledge of professional practices and standards. “The Tunisian media today reflects the old regime. Tunisia doesn’t have journalists who are qualified to cover this kind of transition. It will take time for civil society and the media to rebuild themselves, but we do expect a new media to emerge,” Yahyaoui says. During the transition stage, citizens need relevant, quality political information and news. Marsad is partnering with NGOs, such as Nawaat, to push for improved professional and citizen journalism practices. “This is a critical period of Tunisian history. People want to know what’s happening and what’s going to happen, and the main issue preventing them from knowing is access to good information.” 


 Challenge: Creating a Culture of Participatory Citizenship

Under President Ben Ali, citizens feared voicing political opinions and taking political action. To reengage people now, Marsad is incorporating a citizen-politician public dialogue forum, modeled on Hackmack’s Parliament Watch, into its website. The forum will be launched over the coming year. In the forum, citizens will engage in progressive discussions with politicians and hold members of Parliament accountable to their promises. The hope is that through engaged dialogue, Tunisians will better understand the emerging democracy, narrowing the gap between politicians and citizens. 


By Leah Breen 

Blog Thumbnail: