When students in Tunisia were given the opportunity to make short videos about their lives and experiences, the results were impressive. In fact, they spoke to media professionals about the issues that mattered most to them, they learned how to produce video content and to tell stories about life in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, they shared ideas and experiences with fellow students around the country, and they saw as well talked about how important it is for media literacy to be embedded in education.
Identifying the gaps in and limits to media platforms used by Tunisian youth aged between 12 and 18, it was part of a civil society initiative in students’ educational environment to promote media literacy and highlight its role in combating hate speech and promote freedom of expression as a fundamental human right that guarantees other freedoms. Working in partnership with the Tunisian Ministry of Education in 2018, ARTICLE 19 MENA set up Ahki free la Télé, an online TV channel linked to an interactive platform, “A7Kifree”.
Dangers and opportunities
In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, young people had an increasing reliance on the internet, and on social media in particular. Lockdowns and the feelings of isolation that ensued meant that people turned to online information even more, and, as a result, there has been greater opportunity for disinformation to thrive and spread. Isolation and people not having access to the social and physical interactions they normally do have created greater passivity when receiving such information. Many young people were inundated with information they had never had access to before, via both familiar and unfamiliar platforms, and from both traditional and new media. For these reasons, media literacy and information is needed more than ever: to counter and combat the spread of misinformation, help people — particularly the young — to be more vigilant and question what they are exposed to and access news and opinion, and to help them to think critically when using social media and therefore become responsible content producers. Additionally, when equipped with media and information literacy (MIL) education, young people make informed contributions to their communities, including through electoral processes and civic participation or becoming more sensitised about governmental health measures to combat the COVID 19 crisis.
Since the final phase of the project took place during the first wave of COVID-19 in Tunisia, every aspect of it, from training to final production, was carried out in strict compliance with government health guidance and safety restrictions. When the spread of COVID-19 accelerated and the government imposed a lockdown, the high school students moved their work and communication online, collaborating effectively with teachers and media literacy trainers, as well as fellow students. The importance of media literacy became clear during the pandemic, and as isolation within society increased, students were able to see how communication skills could help them develop strategies to deal with the unprecedented crisis. The students were able to finish filming and editing their videos thanks to strong organisational skills and a dynamic, strong relationship between them and the Ahki free web TV directing team, as well as with other young people working on similar projects in different regions of Tunisia.
The students’ videos focused on a range of issues linked to school life during the pandemic, delivering powerful messages that raised awareness about the importance of being safe and following health guidance. One video tackled mental health problems, an issue that most of the students were experiencing during lockdown, suggesting ways of overcoming it.
“From an early age we had been told that we must go to school and that going to school is [part of our] duty to succeed,” said 15-year-old Maryam, one of the participants. “We go to school every day, we learn the alphabet, arithmetics, multiplication tables, and a lot of other subjects … but we don’t learn at school how to manage time, or how to analyse, be critical and discuss. There is no chance to create or innovate — as if we are machines only meant to eat and sleep…”
Maryam’s observations speak volumes, testament to the fact that so many people of her age are facing obstacles in their day-to-day life and in their education. It is hard for them to find a way to express themselves and make their voices heard. Projects such as Ahki free la Télé are crucial because they help battle disinformation, build media literacy and ultimately pave the way for change.
Media and information literacy (MIL) in action
The Ahki free la Télé project ran a series of training sessions on media literacy and content with a specific focus on audio-visual content creation, engaging 76 students from 19 Citizenship and Human Rights High School Clubs in several regions of Tunisia in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
The media production training presented a safe space for Tunisian young people to express themselves freely, to exchange and discuss ideas with others, to hold a mirror up to their worries and the issues that affected them most — and, crucially, to map out ways of dealing with them.
Building democratic values in a nascent transitional democracy country like Tunisia depends on young people’s ability to bring in responsible leadership so that they can enjoy their right to express themselves freely — and in return, they will be able to contribute to the growth of quality media and information that move their voices and concerns to action on both local and global levels. This is to reiterate the importance of teaching the younger generations the right tools to navigate media narratives and decipher messages presented to them, empowering them to craft creative and appropriate responses, critically examine resources presented to them, and create reliable contributions on the topics they are passionate about. At the same time, there is a vital need for resources to be invested by the Tunisia government, by educational departments, as well as by civil society organisations and media literacy stakeholders so as to ensure the quality information and media will begin to take shape and be sustained in Tunisia and elsewhere.
Media literacy was first championed by UNESCO, which came up with the multi-layered concept in 2007, and designated “Information as a Public Good” as this year’s World Press Freedom Day. Media literacy emphasizes the importance of competence in both offline and online environments, and is an attempt to transform media users’ interactions with and behavioral responses to information diffused via a range of platforms. The result is a re-think of the role of formal media and information education and the acknowledgment of how education curricula must embed media and information literacy as a priority in order to teach young people and help them put into practice strong and responsible civic participation.