Since the 2011 revolution that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, Tunisia has been experiencing a democratic transition with some surprising twists and turns, but a power grab by President Kais Saied in July 2021 has led to fears of a setback for press freedom.
The media landscape has been growing more diverse since the 2011 revolution. An economic crisis threatens the independence of many news operations, given that they are dominated by political and economic interests, jeopardizing the new surge of pluralism. Television is the most popular form of media, with private networks Al Hiwar Ettounsi and Attessia the leaders. The major radio station is Mosaïque FM. Online outlets have an avid following, but the print press is fading.
The political crisis shaking the country, and Saied’s uncertain commitment to press freedom, have major repercussions. Since he was inaugurated in October 2019, the presidential palace has stopped receiving journalists, despite protests by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists. Media outlets do not proclaim their political affiliations, with the exception of the TV Nessma network, owned by political figure Nabil Karoui, but choice of guests and treatment of certain topics reveal political leanings. A prohibition by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (HAICA) on combining media ownership with political leadership is ignored by many owners.
Freedom of the press and of information is an undeniable achievement of the Tunisian revolution. In addition to being guaranteed by the Constitution of 2014, these rights are legally upheld by decree-laws promulgated in 2011. However, that package of measures is incomplete, and ensures only minimum legal protection to journalists and media. The Tunisian legal system persists in ruling on the basis of laws left over from the Ben Ali era, rather than relying on decree-laws more favourable to press and information freedom.
The media depend on private advertisers, some of which have media holdings and may have political ties. This environment threatens editorial independence. Advertising revenue also depends on audience size. Statistics on the matter are loosely calculated and strongly questioned. The broadcast advertising market has undergone a major change since 2014, with increased spending on political advertising. The economic model for the print press, based on subscriptions, advertising and street sales, is weakening, given a drop-off in individual sales and a shrinking advertising market.
Political parties regularly turn to social networks to launch disinformation campaigns, to discredit the press, and instill suspicion and confusion among voters. Verbal attacks on the media by political leaders have increased in recent years.
Intimidation of journalists has become normalised. Reporters also confront violence from street demonstrators. A new line was crossed on January 14, 2022, when the correspondent for several international media Mathieu Galtier was beaten, and a dozen other journalists brutalised, when they covered a protest.