Funds coming indirectly to Tunisian media from the U.S. State Department program MEPI (Middle East Partnership Initiative), have raised concern lately for lack of transparency.
While MEPI doesn’t provide grants to any Tunisian media organization directly, they fund several non-profits who in turn distribute funds to Tunisian radio, television, and other media outlets.
Those non-profits include America Abroad, Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Freedom House, according to Jason Khile, Press Officer of the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. According to Khile, grant recipients in Tunisia are chosen in Washington D.C. after passing selection based on the submission of written proposals.
Yassine Ayari, an eminent Tunisian blogger and activist, expressed reservations regarding the new, unregulated influx of foreign assistance.
“I don’t think that these organizations are being neutral and transparent when selecting their Tunisian counterparts. The criteria and process of selection are not clear,” he stated.
America Abroad, one of the associations to receive a grant from MEPI, is an example of a non-profit organization that has arrived in Tunisia following the ouster of Tunisia’s former dictator President Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali. The organization’s declared objective is to produce in-depth reporting on critical international issues. Operating in Tunisia, America Abroad is now called “Association Tunisie Media” and is collaborating with several Tunisian radio and television stations in the form of either co-producing shows or training journalists.
Greta Ghacibeh, the manager of America Abroad’s Tunis office, refused to disclose the amount of money received from MEPI.
Additionally, some have expressed concern that by changing its name the organization is implicitly preventing its audience from having an accurate idea about the source of funding for TV or radio shows affiliated with America Abroad.
Ghacibeh explained that adopting a local name is a tradition that America Abroad follows in all the countries. “It is the choice of the Washington D.C.-based America Abroad,” added Ghacibeh.
When asked about suspicions concerning America Abroad’s affiliation with MEPI, and the lack of transparency regarding the extent of their funding, she said, “People in the MENA region are fond of conspiracy theories.”
Kamel Abidi, president of the National Authority for Information and Communication Reform (INRIC), a post-revolutionary committee of experts in charge of media reform, highlighted the positive contribution of some media assistance organizations, and said that INRIC encourages such initiatives if they foster the development of free media in Tunisia. However, Abidi also pointed out that some of these organizations need to be more transparent about their operations.
“Transparency should be the rule for these institutions. They cannot just hide behind other names,” he stated.
Yassine Ayari agreed that transparency in non-profit funding for Tunisian media had to be guaranteed.
“The programs should be transparent and public. From the moment there is money invested in the game, there will be an attempt to serve political interests and even alter the political landscape in the country. As Tunisians we have the right to know what is going on regarding the amounts of money that are being spent to support the democratic transition in Tunisia,” said Ayari.
When asked about the specific sums given out by MEPI, Jason Khile argued that the regional nature of US donation made quantifying the amount given to Tunisia a challenge.
“It can be difficult to get into dollar figures particlarly with MEPI because they have a lot of grants that deal with multiple countries, and so it can be difficult to pin down how much of that is going to Egypt, or how much is going to Morocco, or how much going to Jordan,” said Khile.
Keith Krause, a grant officer at MEPI, estimated the yearly amount given to the MENA region at 5,000,000 USD in local grants in 2010, but did not specify how much was given to Tunisia or by how much that sum had changed since the revolution.
In response to the allegations from Yassine Ayari, among others, that the criteria for grant-giving were not clear and potentially biased, Krause
“We don’t fund partisan political activities or even things that give the appearance. So even if it’s not deliberately associated with a certain political group gut all the participants were going to be from one political group, that is not something we would do,” Keith R. Krause Grant Officer at MEPI.
Khile was unequivocal in denying that U.S. money went directly to Nessma TV, the Tunisian television station at the center of a controversy since it’s decision to air the Franco-Iranian film Persepolis shortly prior to the Constituent Assembly elections last year.
“Neither MEPI nor the U.S. Embassy has provided any money directly to Nessma TV or, indeed, to any other media organization,” he added