Lab Report

A Tale of Two Decrees

Tunisia's media sector still has a long way to go before it can serve as a bulwark of democracy. The third in our series of Lab Reports on Tunisia.

Top image: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Top image: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia’s journalists have gone through a lot in the past few years. Until the fall of 2010 they still lived in “one of the worst media environments in the Arab world,” according to Freedom House. Under the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, journalists were arrested, beaten, or fired from their jobs for the slightest of transgressions. The state kept reporters under close surveillance and did its best to prevent them from leaving the country (although dozens managed to escape into exile nonetheless). A central censorship board tightly controlled all political news. Criticism of the president was not tolerated.

Democracy Lab’s In-Depth Reports on Tunisia

  • LAB REPORT 1: Embracing Enemies in Tunisia, by Oussama Romdhani
  • LAB REPORT 2: Put Tunisians Back to Work, by Emmanuel Martin and Dalibor Rohac
  • LAB REPORT 3: A Tale of Two Decrees, by Fadil Aliriza

The start of the Tunisian uprising brought dramatic change. The collapse of Ben Ali’s regime in early 2011 threw Tunisia’s traditional police state off balance, and a cacophony of competing interests opened up in the media sector. Jailed journalists, activists, and bloggers were released. New press codes promised free access to information. Tunisian journalists of all stripes, particularly those from state institutions, received training from international bodies to support the development of an independent fourth estate.

Yet despite all that has happened, Tunisia’s media sector, like the country’s state institutions, remains largely unreformed. “After the revolution I felt comfortable covering any subject,” says Asma Sahboun, a reporter at Chorouk, Tunisia’s highest-circulation daily newspaper. “But now we’re scared that it will go back to what it was like before. I’m scared, because the structure of the media fundamentally hasn’t changed.”

The problems of the media are best understood against the background of the reforms undertaken by Tunisia’s second post-revolutionary government. One of the first results of the uprising was the disbanding of the High Communication Council, the government body that had been tasked with censoring the press under Ben Ali, in March 2011. Then-Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi replaced it with the National Committee for Information and Communication Reform, which quickly drew up two decrees that established the framework for all future media sector reform.

The first decree, number 115, clearly established the principle of press freedom. Yet three years later, it continues to co-exist uneasily with Tunisia’s unreformed penal code, which even today allows journalists to be arrested, fined, and jailed on charges such as “defamation,” “offenses against state agents,” and “harming public order.” There have been many calls for reform of the penal code, even from government ministers. Human rights activists have been particularly vocal about the need to overhaul laws used to silence journalists. But this sensitive task remains captive to the broader movement to reform the justice system, which has stalled.

With conflicting laws on the books, it has been easy for the state to deal with its critics as it always has: with repression. The government’s tendency to ignore the rights enshrined in decree 115 has only intensified since the formation early this year of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa’s nonpartisan government. Since then, police forces have cracked down on dissenting journalists, arresting and beating those who cover events that show the security forces in an unfavorable light. One journalist who was charged with defamation under the Ben Ali regime and whose case was dropped following the 2011 revolution is now being charged again for the same crime. To be sure, serious efforts to reform the sector are under way. But the advocates of press freedom face an uphill battle in a country whose citizens are experiencing democracy fatigue, and where state institutions still await substantive reform. (In the photo above, a Tunisian journalist looks through a TV frame during a sit-in to protest aggression against TV reporters in April 2012.)

The second decree, number 116, created a new independent body called the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA). Apart from regulating all broadcast news and entertainment, HAICA is charged with “guaranteeing the freedom of expression” and the “establishment of a pluralistic, honest media landscape,” according to the new constitution. HAICA has interpreted that to include preventing special interests from exercising undue influence. It’s a role that’s phenomenally important in a country where over 99 percent of citizens own a television set. Tunisians trust the national TV station for news about Tunisia above any other media source, and, according to a BBC Media Action survey of the country’s broadcasting environment, some 80 percent of the population catch national TV’s nightly news bulletin at least once a week. HAICA’s mission to regulate and reform TV and radio would be difficult enough, given the long-standing tradition of state control. Now the job is additionally complicated by private media barons who are vying to expand their influence over politics, the economy, and the media in the run-up to elections that are likely to be held this year.

“Unfortunately there are a lot of journalists and media bosses that have misunderstood the freedom of expression,” says Hichem Snoussi, one of HAICA’s nine members. He can be forgiven for choosing his words carefully: He’s alluding to the wide range of misdeeds habitually committed by Tunisia’s post-revolutionary media, including outright slander, propaganda in favor of particular political groups, and exploitative intrusion into the privacy of private citizens.

Since its creation, HAICA has worked hard to preserve its independence and its potentially far-reaching powers. Debate flared earlier this year, when members of the constituent assembly attempted to use the new constitution to relegate HAICA to an advisory role. Thanks to some energetic, last-minute lobbying, HAICA managed to block passage of these articles; in the end the drafters of the constitution approved relatively neutral language on the body’s role. There is still a chance, however, that HAICA might be captured by other interests or is already being swayed by other interests. “The texts are still too blurry to guarantee the full independence of HAICA,” says Eve Sabbagh, the country director of the non-profit media development organization BBC Media Action, “but we have to recognize this is a huge achievement.”

More recently, HAICA’s new cahier de charge, its draft legal framework, has threatened to upset the status quo. The weight of this document is unclear, since no one really knows just how independent HAICA is, or how authoritative its decisions are — but the cahier pulls no punches. It offers specific rules on everything from licensing, intellectual property, and financial transparency, to content control on issues like discrimination, defamation, and hate speech.

After announcing this protocol, HAICA was attacked by nearly all sides. Its opponents — the owners of big private TV stations — dislike its anti-monopoly stipulations, its ban on the ownership of TV stations by political parties, and its requirement that TV stations publicly declare their funding and ownership, according to Snoussi.

Businessman Nabil Karoui, the owner and director of Nessma TV, says he has been blasting away at Snoussi and his colleagues for other reasons. He complains that the members of the commission don’t understand the business that they’re trying to regulate — exemplified by the cahier’s strict limits on advertising, which, he says, threaten profitability. He claims he has already lost 70 percent in advertising dollars over the last three years. “They think we are all Murdochs, but we are all so miserable,” Karoui says. Karoui hasn’t been afraid to push back. At one point he told fans of a popular Turkish soap opera that HAICA’s restrictions might lead Nessma to pull the show.

Yet it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that Karoui’s indignation is also due in part to his close relationship to one of Tunisia’s leading political parties. According to Nadia Haddawi, a journalist at the citizen journalism blog Nawaat, Nessma TV is closely allied with former Prime Minister Essebsi, who now leads Nida Tounes, the most popular secular party and a bastion of old regime figures. (Karoui denies this, saying he is now friendly with the leaders of both major parties, Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi of the former governing Islamist party Ennahda. Karoui takes credit for bringing those leaders together last year to end months of deadlock: “I organized… six or seven meetings and you see the results: Tunisia is good. It’s not as bad as Egypt or Libya because of that.”)

At the same time, HAICA finds itself fending off attacks from allies of Ennahda as well. Lotfi Touati, the new chief producer of the Ennahda-friendly TV station Zitouna, says that HAICA is biased against his network. He cites a decision by HAICA to ban a radio show that condemned the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013. Even though HAICA has also issued rulings against the secular Ettounsiya TV station, Touati dismisses them as trivial.

Ettounsiya, Tunisia’s most popular private TV station, is a particularly interesting case. Although the channel’s ownership is opaque, it is widely believed that a Tunisian business tycoon named Slim Riahi effectively controls the station. Though HAICA’s Snoussi declined to comment directly on reports of Riahi’s influence, he pointedly warned against the combination of politics, money, and media, noting that “we have seen the results with Berlusconi, with Murdoch.”

Riahi remains a mysterious figure. Formerly a London-based businessman who made his fortune in Libya, he is known to have close ties to the Trabelsis, the family of Ben Ali’s wife Leila. In 2011, Riahi started his own political party just in time for the first post-revolutionary elections, though it ended up winning few votes. Although Ettounsiya appears to be owned by a Delaware-registered group, something that Snoussi confirms, the network’s corresponding Tunisian production company, Cactus Production, is based in Tunisia, meaning that it falls under HAICA’s jurisdiction. (Riahi did not respond to requests for comment made through his associates.)

According to Sabbagh of BBC Media Action, media reform can only go so far until the government moves forward on the issue of transitional justice. The Tunisian government has yet to decide whether or not to forgive the officials who work with the old regime, she says.

She may be right. Until they begin that discussion, the line between propagandists and real journalists will remain blurry. If there are absolutely no consequences for propagandists masquerading as journalists, then there will be no incentive for the establishment of professional journalism.

Journalists working in Tunisia today had differing relationships with the Ben Ali regime. Some, like Lotfi Ben Nasr, the ex-director of the state TV station Tunisie 7 who now works as a reporter for national TV, worked to advance the regime’s goals. Then there are those like Nawaat’s Sami Ben Gharbia, who strongly supported the revolution. “We try to influence the influencers,” says Ben Gharbia. “Average citizens will read tabloids and bullshit stories.” He and many like him were persecuted or pushed into exile when their reporting disobeyed government censors — but, as one might expect, they were the exceptions. Of the journalists working in Tunisia today, most of them have careers more closely resembling Ben Nasr’s. And even though the nine members of HAICA are tough defenders of press freedom today, most of them had to make their own compromises as journalists during the days of the old regime.

While Ben Gharbia offers his support to HAICA in its fight with private TV stations and state institutions, he takes a radical line on the question of forgiveness. “I don’t think it’s possible to reform a sector that was corrupted, that was part of the propaganda machine and an arm of the Ben Ali regime by will or by pressure,” he says. But he still has hope. “We need a new generation of journalists and activists. They’re emerging and they’ll be stronger in the future.”

Given that Tunisia does not currently have a democratically elected government, and given the fierce debate over HAICA, this is a pivotal moment for the media sector. The enemies of reform — the state, the media barons, and certain political parties — all have an interest in preventing the media from serving an informed citizenry. Karoui, for his part, is confident that he and his allies will block implementation of the cahier in the courts. He may be right. He’s even gained friends of the cause among the country’s powerful labor unions, who have warmed to the role of arbiter between the state and the new elites.

“HAICA is a joke, my friend,” Karoui told me. ” HAICA is temporary.” He’s confident that the parliament that emerges from the next round of national elections will end up choosing an entirely new HAICA board. “We saw the danger. All the parties saw the danger as well.” He says that he and his allies are drafting a new media law that will protect their interests.

A lot can still happen between now and then. The advocates of reform — activists, bloggers, NGOs, an independent HAICA, and international partners — may not succeed in preventing private media outlets from wielding inordinate power. At the very least, however, they might be able to carve out a space for a nonpartisan public media and private institutions that can provide a check on the power of the state. One can only hope they succeed. The freedom of speech, perhaps the revolution’s most precious gain and a prerequisite for many other democratic reforms, is far from guaranteed in today’s Tunisia. Preserving and expanding it will take a lot of hard work.

Fadil Aliriza is a Visiting Senior Fellow for the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum. He has been working as a journalist and analyst focusing on Tunisia and Libya after the 2011 uprisings. Follow him on Twitter @FadilAliriza.