Nabil Jridet, director of the first post-revolutionary Arabic-language weekly newspaper Al Oula, began an open-ended hunger strike on May 9.
Jridet announced his intentions to start the hunger strike on May 3, on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, and asserted that unfair distribution of paid public advertisements and other announcements was the main reason for the the action.
“Favoritism, party affiliation, and political loyalty are still governing the process of attribution of public advertisements,” he said.
Under the previous regime, the Tunisian Agency of External Communication, referred to by its French acronym ATCE, was in charge of allotting paid public announcements and other funding to media outlets. The body, which was in charge of regulating the media sector, was widely regarded as a propaganda agency for Ben Ali’s government, and the distribution of funds was thought to be based on the degree of political loyalty to Ben Ali’s RCD party.
After the revolution, the ATCE was abolished and no other body was created to take over the allocation of public announcements to different media outlets.
“Today, we are back to same old practices of the ATCE…The most obvious example is that Al Fajr, [the newspaper of the Ennahdha Party] takes a larger share of public ads, and needless to ask about why,” Jridet told Tunisia Live.
“The government needs to regulate this state of chaos, several newspapers disappeared due to the lack of fair distribution of public ads,” stated Jridet.
Public advertising is a major source of revenue for Tunisian newspapers, and includes the advertising money provided by large national companies that are part public, such as the telecommunications operator Tunisie Telecom.
The National Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC), an independent committee founded shortly after the revolution to scrutinize the media sector in Tunisia and suggest potential means of reform, devoted a whole chapter to the issue of advertising in its final report released on May 2nd. The report charged the media advertising sector in Tunisia with “complete absence of ethical rules and codes of conduct.”
Rim Kacem, an employee at INRIC, stated that after the revolution the press attachés of Tunisia’s ministries opted for distributing paid public announcements and other public advertising randomly in the absence of any other system.
Hichem Snoussi, a media expert and a member of INRIC, stated that there has not been a political will either from the current government or from the former one to regulate public advertising. It was Snoussi’s belief that a better distribution of public money to media would better enable new media outlets to develop, something he felt was important given the political changes Tunisia is going through. He stated his concern that the media scene was controlled by powerful players from before the revolution.
“The only newspapers which were able to survive after the revolution are partisan newspapers, which is alarming. Two scenarios are awaiting new newspapers, either to disappear or to be sold to private capital,” Snoussi told Tunisia Live.
Snoussi said that when attributing public advertising, several objective criteria must be considered. “Apart from the number of readers, the commitment and respect of labor agreements should also be taken into account. We cannot give public ads to newspapers that are exploiting journalists and are not paying them fairly,” he explained.
INRIC’s report stated also that the laws crafted by INRIC, namely the press code and a law creating an independent commission to regulate audio-visual communication, sought to “prohibit the overlap between journalistic activity and work in the advertising industry and to make clear the distinction between a news article and and an advertorial,” according to an extract from the report.
Nabil Jridet told Tunisia Live that Lotfi Zitoun, political counselor to Hamadi Jebali, called him personally and asked him to stop the hunger strike.
“But, I refused. I told him I want an official response from the government. I am not looking for a radical solution…I am just looking for partial solutions to save us. We are asking for our rights in public advertisments,” said Jridet.