After the 2011 revolution that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, Tunisia embarked on a democratic transition with unexpected twists and turns. A power grab by President Kais Saied in July 2021 has led to fears of a major setback for press freedom.
The media landscape has grown more diverse since the 2011 revolution. But an economic crisis has undermined the independence of many media outlets, which are dominated by political and economic interests, and has jeopardised this nascent diversity. Television is the most popular medium, especially the privately owned channels Al Hiwar Ettounsi and Attessia. Radio comes next, with Mosaïque FM as the leading station. Online outlets have an avid following, but the print media are losing ground.
The political crisis shaking the country, and Saied’s uncertain commitment to press freedom, have had major repercussions. Since his inauguration as president in October 2019, the presidential palace has stopped receiving journalists, despite protests by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). A prohibition by the Independent High Authority for Broadcast Communication (HAICA) on combining media ownership with a political position is ignored by many owners.
The constitutional amendment of July 2022, giving the president broad legislative powers to the detriment of the checks and balances that had existed until then, has jeopardised the separation of powers and poses a major threat to the Tunisian revolution’s achievements in terms of press freedom. The independence of the judiciary has also been weakened, raising fears that, when the courts are called on to interpret the new restrictions, their rulings will serve political interests under the guise of supposed security imperatives. The courts had already persisted in ruling on the basis of laws left over from the Ben Ali era, rather than more recent decree-laws more favourable to press and information freedom. After the sharp decline in the political environment, Decree-Law 54, issued in September 2022 with the declared aim of combatting “fake news”, has posed a major new threat to press freedom.
The media depend on private sector advertisers, some of whom own stakes in the media and may have political ties – a situation that threatens editorial independence. Advertising revenue is linked to audience size, and the way this is calculated is poorly regulated and much disputed. The TV and radio advertising market has undergone a major change since 2014, with increased spending on political advertising. The print media’s economic model, based on subscriptions, advertising and street sales, is in danger, as both ads and sales are falling.
Political parties often use social media to conduct disinformation campaigns, smear the media, and sow suspicion and confusion among voters. Verbal attacks on the media by politicians have increased in recent years.
Attempts to intimidate journalists are now widespread. Reporters are also confronted with violence from street demonstrators. A threshold was crossed on 14 January 2022, when a correspondent of several international media outlets was beaten and ten other reporters were roughed up while covering a protest. Then, in February 2023, the journalist and director of Mosaïque FM, Noureddine Boutar, was detained.