As I watch Tunisian television and read Tunisian newspapers today, I see they have come a long way. This is refreshing and inspiring, but issues remain regarding the media environment developing since the revolution.
I vividly remember how, when former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali announced he was stepping down January 14, 2011, the main television station changed its name from “Tunisia 7” – named after the date Ben Ali came to power, November 7, 1987 – to “Tunisian National Television.” But more than just the name changed; some faces close to Ben Ali’s government suddenly disappeared and new ones took their place. That same night, the station that served as a government mouthpiece for 23 years (the length of time Ben Ali governed Tunisia), hosted an unprecedented live political debate that questioned everything and everyone, including one of its main presenters. Watching this, and subsequent fundamental changes in the Tunisian media scene, it felt like a true revolution had taken place.
While ordinary Tunisians have expressed frustration that the uprising has done little to resolve daily economic hardships, journalists cherish the new gains. In the months following the uprising, there was an explosion of new platforms for expression, including newspapers, magazines, blogs, films, and public art. New television and radio stations are hosting new talk shows. More than a hundred newspapers and magazines and seven new political party newspapers were licensed by July 2011.
Since then, new ground has been broken and there has been more investigative journalism into important and sometimes controversial issues. There is even political satire on privately-owned TV stations where both government and opposition figures alike are ridiculed – something that was completely unthinkable before the revolution.
This newfound freedom remains a work in progress, however. In the first few months following Ben Ali’s demise, the new media environment rapidly became characterized by what some describe as “media laxity.” Satellite TV channels, radio stations, and newspaper columns were used as arenas in which personal and political scores could be settled. Accusations were flung without proof and baseless rumours circulated. The newfound freedom was taken too far, and there were numerous cases of libel and defamation. People were attacked in live debates without being given the right to reply. In an environment of competition between various TV channels for scoops, journalists did not always double-check the accuracy of the news they were reporting. The situation reached a dangerous turning point when a young man called for the execution of then interim-Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi on live television.
Some say this is a natural reaction to the ending of entrenched taboos and the absence of any regulation. The interim government’s decision to dissolve the Ministry of Communication – which used to monitor the entire process of media production – as well as the dismantling of the Tunisian Agency for External Communication (ATCE) emboldened journalists to cross previous red lines. The use of the Internet, particularly social networks, has been extremely important in all this. The ATCE was replaced by a temporary media advisory board, The Independent National Authority for Communication Reform (INRIC), charged with drafting Tunisia’s new press code.
In addition to what some consider to be “tabloid” style journalism and the deviation from professional standards of journalism by some channels and newspapers, there have been attempts by the new Islamist-led government to “control the media,” as journalists say. It has done this by appointing top-ranking officials to head state-run television, radio stations, and newspapers. This caused outrage in the media community and forced the government to either make concessions or completely backtrack on these decisions.
Tunisian courts also fined Nabil Karoui, the owner of Nessma TV, for “disturbing public order and violating sacred values” when the station decided in October 2011 to air Persepolis – a Franco-Iranian film that some considered blasphemous. Professor Hamadi Redissi, a secular Tunisian intellectual and editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Maghreb, was violently attacked by Salafists upon leaving the courthouse after Karaoui’s hearing, which he attended to support freedom of expression.
Sami Fehri, a well known television presenter and founder of another private TV station, Ettounsiya, has been imprisoned without trial since November 2012. He had been accused of corruption under Ben Ali’s government, but some journalists claim the current government’s intention is to take over the station because it is considered too independent and too critical.
Recently, Olfa Riahi, a young journalist and blogger, accused a high-ranking minister, who was also the son-in-law of Ennahdha leader Ghannouchi, of misusing public funds in what has become known in Tunisia as the “Sheraton Gate” scandal. Riahi has been banned from leaving the country and is under investigation by the attorney general. She risks a two-year prison sentence and even execution if convicted of “maligning a public official with false information.”
The private-public media distinction raises another concern within Tunisia’s media environment. Critics of private media outlets, such as Nessma TV and Hannibal TV, argue that private media channels reflect their owners’ opinions, while state-run TV stations, such as Al-Wataniya, are nominally under the control of the ruling troika headed by Ennahdha.
Outdated press and penal codes also continue to restrict expression in the media sector. Within this context, critics of Tunisia’s post-electoral media environment worry about a return of self-censorship. Members of the current government suffered from oppression and exile for decades under Ben Ali’s rule.
But there’s mistrust on both sides. The government says there are still remnants of Ben Ali’s clique in media and call their stations “media of shame,” while journalists accuse the government of failing to fulfil its electoral promises and trying to rule by force.
Moreover, with fresh elections scheduled to take place later this year, mainstream and newly-founded private media organizations are attracting the attention of different political players. And, there are fears they might serve to advance political agendas.
The Tunisian uprising has been described as a model of success and a largely peaceful process compared to the experiences of neighbouring countries. But many say the success of the political transition cannot be complete without media reform.
The current atmosphere of press freedom in Tunisia is both new and dynamic, but it is also fragile, as journalists and journalism continue to face daily challenges.
Mounira Chaieb is a Tunisian freelance journalist and writer based in London. The post reflects the opinions of the author and not those of Tunisia Live as a publication.