Tarak Ben Ammar's Nessma stays on front lines of uprising

The popular uprising in Tunisia, which ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power, is proving that clamping down on information outlets anywhere these days is like trying to put out fire with gasoline.

Though the deposed Ben Ali government arrested journalists, tried to block broadcasts, hacked and disabled blogs and deleted Facebook pages, the Tunisian revolution was — and continues to be — televised, and also tweeted, blogged and texted.

Which makes Tunisian media and entertainment entrepreneur Tarak Ben Ammar proud.

Ben Ammar is also a shareholder in Tunis-based satcaster Nessma TV, the first local media outlet to air news on the escalating protests.

“Nessma became the voice of democracy and freedom for Tunisia,” Ben Ammar says. “We were the first media outlet to break the taboo on freedom of expression when we aired a special report on the demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 30.

“We filmed the uprising, aired a debate with members of the opposition and real journalists, and after six minutes I got a call from Ben Ali.”

The media mogul had been at the Tunisian shoot of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s epic “Black Gold,” toplining Antonio Banderas and Frieda Pinto, when the riots broke out and escalated. Both stars remained at Ben Ammar’s Empire Studios outside Hammamet, where there was rioting.

But despite Nessma being threatened with closure by the former president, who also threatened to jail Nessma’s general manager, Nabil Karoui, station execs stood firm.

The Nessma program, in which Sidi Bouzid residents denounced corruption, nepotism and power abuse, was viewed by a massive audience in the Maghreb region of nearly 20 million — with just over 10 million in Tunisia alone.

Ben Ammar, who says he did not sleep for a week during the uprising, also has plenty of praise for the pervasive power of the Internet in fostering what he calls “an extraordinary popular revolution.”

“It was like having 10 million journalists,” he says. “So many Tunisian citizens e-mailed live images to my TV station.”

Of course, it helped that 65% of the population in Tunisia is under 25 with a high level of education and Internet literacy.

The uprising was sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate without a steady job who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he sold without a permit to support his family.

Nessma competes with big pan-regional heavyweights such as MBC, Rotana and Al Jazeera, but unlike those outlets, Nessma is Tunisia-based and caters specifically the Maghreb, the western part of North Africa.

Ben Ammar, who is a nephew of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourgiba, the man replaced by Ben Ali 23 years ago, has long seen his entertainment ventures as a catalyst for change in the region.

But what he experienced during the uprising goes beyond anything he could ever have immagined.

“There I am making a movie about the conflict between modernity and tradition in this region, and all of a sudden we are living a real conflict all around us; it was a unique experience,” he says.

Amazingly, the turmoil did not affect the shooting schedule of “Black Gold,” and resulted in just a two-day delay.

That’s because Ben Ammar, who is a major employer in the area, was able to benefit from spontaneous protection of thousands of locals “who as soon as security issues arose started surrounding the studios in solidarity.”

“The set became like a bunker thanks to support from the population around my studios,” he recounts. “Antonio Banderas was so moved that he was crying. He said to me: ‘It reminds me of the end of Franco in Spain; I am living through the revolution of a people.’ “

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