For many, the term “pirate radio” conjures cinematic images of the eponymously named 2009 film, in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman and his band of British merrymakers set out with a boat and a stolen FM frequency to defy the Victorian British Censors and broadcast the ethos of an era.
In Tunisia, the blockbuster story plays out over the airwaves. Nearly two years after the nation’s revolution, the fight for radio freedoms continues down its own path—one in which the internet, radio dissidents, government regulation, and advertising money all shape the struggle over who controls the media.
Smaller independent radio channels that were persecuted under the old regime say that, facing expensive and exclusive requirements, they continue to struggle for a legitimate place in broadcast.
“It’s a problem, and the government doesn’t want to discuss it with us,” says Jarray Samir, assistant secretary general of the Tunisian Union of Free Radio (STRL) who works at Radio 6. “They don’t want to open the file.”
The struggle for radio independence started in 2007 when Radio 6 began an effort to transmit the critical voices that were often stifled by government censorship. They wanted to expose the stories that were covered up by the old regime.
“We were the voice for those who could not speak, including representatives of civil society and human rights activists,” says Salah Fourti, secretary general of the STRL.
Under Ben Ali, only government-approved stations—both private or state-run—were granted access to FM frequencies. Opposition media, relegated to the internet, were subject to surveillance, seizure of equipment, and the constant threat of arrest.
The procrustean system forced pirate radio broadcasters to use various forms of deception to defy the censors.
“We communicated over Skype, independently gathered testimonies, and sent the recording to Europe where it was edited and streamed back to Tunisia,” says Omar Mestiri, general manager of Radio Kalima, which started in 2008. “We were a rebel radio.”
Mestiri rejects the term “pirate radio” because his group never illegally used an FM frequency. During the revolution, Radio Kalima and Radio 6 transmitted daily updates online, often through proxy websites.
Only following the fall of Ben Ali, could the stations transmit over the airwaves without fear of government intervention. In the summer of 2011, the government granted Radio 6 and Radio Kalima official authorization to broadcast.
But a year and a half later, some broadcasters say, the government has not figured out how to efficiently regulate radio media without curtailing the right to free expression.
The government’s National Office of Broadcasting (ONT) requires broadcasters to pay a licensing fee of 120,000 dinars (approximately $75,000) to use their equipment, and while that license is not necessary to broadcast, it confers a certain amount of legitimacy that broadcasters need to draw advertisers.
The fee is a tall order for any upstart media organization. All members of the STRL have refused to pay the 120,000 dinars, believing that the process confers an unfair advantage upon the private groups organized under the old regime.
“120,000 dinars is an astronomical sum, especially for small radio stations. It’s an obstacle to the freedom of expression,” Fourti said. “We tried to cope and break the monopoly of public broadcasting, but even when you pay the money, [the ONT] can stop the broadcast at any time.”
The majority of advertising money continues to go to those groups that operated and developed relationships under the previous regime, Samir says.
“How can we work and compete with the large radios that make millions like Mosaique and Shems FM,” he says.
While Radio Kalima has agreed to pay the 120,000 dinars conferring ONT status, Mestiri says that the ONT fees are too high and that the old stations have an unmerited advantage with advertisers.
“There is a new media landscape, but we need more transparency from all actors involved, because many of the old actors have attempted to [refashion] as new,” Mestiri said. “It’s also a question of ethics and funding.”
Samir and other members of the media hope that decree 116, a proposal to create an independent regulatory body to oversee audiovisual media, will lay the groundwork for a more competitive radio market.
In the meantime, those who choose not to pay the fees find themselves in a broadcasting purgatory.
“We’re not a pirate radio anymore, but the ONT does not recognize Radio 6. They say we’re still a pirate radio,” Samir says. “We say it’s our principle, it’s our liberty. The FM frequencies are not just for the ONT.”