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Tunisia’s Media Landscape: An Overview

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Self-improvised journalist Yassine Ayari (on the left) collects testimonies in Meknassy, Tunisia. Ayari had to go in exile to Belgium after he helped organising an anticensorhip protest in May 2010. He went back to Tunisia after Ben Ali’s fall, travelling around the country to collect and disseminate the testimonies of Tunisians. Photo  Johann Rousselot/laif

Prior to the protests that led to the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia’s media landscape was highly regulated and bureaucratic. Newspapers were introduced in the late 19th century under French colonial rule, with the majority of publications promoting French interests. Censorship was prevalent and, in 1933, the French authorities closed down all newspapers expressing nationalist sentiments. This included La Voix du Tunisien, which featured the writings of future president Habib Bourguiba.

After Bourguiba assumed power following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the printed press continued to be closely controlled and reflected the views of the ruling party. When Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in 1987, a modest increase in press freedom and opposition views was permitted. However, Ben Ali’s reign was characterized by a division of press ownership between the state, private publications that were loyal to the government and a small opposition press segment that was financially starved and politically repressed. Tunisia’s post-2011 newspaper industry has sought to better reflect public sentiments and a variety of new publications has emerged. Yet the country’s transition toward an open press has slowed in recent years.

Radio and television were the primary means for both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali governments to disseminate information. The state’s initial television operator, Radio diffusion-Télévision Tunisienne (RTT), began broadcasting in 1966 and achieved nationwide broadcasts of its flagship channel Télévision Tunisienne 1 by 1971. The channel was later renamed Tunisie 7 after Ben Ali assumed power, and the new president also introduced a second terrestrial channel, Tunisie 21, in an attempt to appeal to younger audiences. The government monopolized broadcasting until the introduction of satellite television in 1992. Even then it was not until the 21st century that Ben Ali approved the establishment of two private satellite channels, both with close ties to the ruling elite and restricted from airing political content.

Following the 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s two state public channels were renamed El Wataniya 1 and 2, whereas the national radio and television operator, Établissement de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Tunisienne (ERTT), was restructured and more diverse programming produced, with opposition groups granted airtime. Since 2011, the BBC reports that at least ten new private channels have launched.

Radio in the Bourguiba era bore similarities to television in terms of being a fully state-operated enterprise and serving the government agenda. Under Ben Ali, five private radio stations were sanctioned, but only one was permitted to broadcast nationwide and all had strong links to the government. Before 2011, independent stations were restricted to broadcasting online from outside the country.

The internet became publicly available in 1996, with broadband connectivity introduced in 2003. In 2016, Tunisia’s internet penetration stands at 52.1 per cent of the population, one of the highest rates in North Africa.

Freedom of Expression

Tunisia is ranked 96th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The country’s transition to democracy following the 2011 revolution reached an important milestone with the passing of two new laws: Decree 115 on the Press, Printing and Publishing, and Decree 116 on the Freedom of Audiovisual Communication.

Click to enlarge. ©Fanack
Click to enlarge. ©Fanack
Click to enlarge. ©Fanack
Click to enlarge. ©Fanack

The laws were meant to replace the restrictive legislation of the 1975 Press Code, for example prison terms for ‘defamation’ and ‘insult’ were scrapped, journalists were provided greater freedom of information rights and the Interior Ministry was awarded less scope to intervene in media affairs.

In 2014, a new constitution was signed, guaranteeing freedom of expression. Article 31 states: ‘Freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication shall be guaranteed. These freedoms shall not be subject to prior censorship.’

Whereas prospects for greater freedom of expression seemed largely promising in the post-revolution environment, Tunisia’s progress in this regard remains problematic. Despite amendments to the press code, laws enshrined during Ben Ali’s reign mean that some journalistic offences, including defamation, are still criminalized under the penal code, and these have yet to be revised. Freedom of expression suffered a serious blow in November 2015, when a nationwide state of emergency was declared following a series of terrorist attacks. The emergency powers are still in force and grant the government the right to censor media products.

The country’s ongoing domestic struggle with an Islamic extremist movement has led to a more cautious media environment. In the past two years, Tunisian journalists have reported receiving death threats purportedly sent by radical Islamic groups opposing their views, whereas security authorities, increasingly sensitive to the extremist presence in the country, have used coercion, intimidation and even physical assault to ensure the press does not contradict the official version of counterterrorism events.

Television

Television is the most influential media platform in Tunisia. In 2015, BBC Media Action reported that 88 per cent of Tunisians aged 16 and over watched television ‘at least once per day’, and 83 per cent considered television their top source of political and current affairs information.

State-owned Channels

  • El Wataniya 1 – First launched in 1966, previously named Tunisie 7 during the Ben Ali era. The current incarnation covers local and national affairs but has suffered a decline in popularity since the 2011 revolution as some viewers associate it with the country’s past.

ChannelPercentage of Audience Share
El Hiwar El Tounsi26.7%
Nessma TV18.4%
El Wataniya 115.6%
Hannibal TV8.1%
El Wataniya 27.8%

Table 1. Most popular domestic channels by audience share (2015). Source: Sigma Conseil.

  • El Wataniya 2 – Launched in 1994 and previously named Tunisie 21 during the Ben Ali era. From 2012 onwards the channel has been dedicated to regional news.

Private Channels

  • Tunisia media Hannibal TV
    Hannibal TV. Photo Flickr

    El Hiwar El Tounsi – A widely popular private channel that was established in 2003 by activist Tahar Ben Hassine, who sold it in 2014. It began broadcasting from France via satellite and aired opposition views and criticism of the Ben Ali government. After the 2011 revolution and increased media freedom, the channel relocated to Tunisia to broadcast domestically. Besides news programming, the channel airs debates and talk shows addressing contentious issues in Tunisian society.

  • Nessma TV – Founded in 2007 as one of two private television channels that were authorized during the Ben Ali era and made available terrestrially, despite initially broadcasting from Paris. It relaunched in 2009 as an entertainment network, airing throughout the Maghreb. It aims to provide content that appeals to younger viewers but has attracted criticism from the public and state authorities for controversial programming. In 2012, its owner, Nabil Karoui, was charged with and fined by Tunisian authorities for ‘violating sacred values’ and ‘disturbing the public order’ after the channel screened the Iranian film Persepolis.

  • Hannibal TV – Established in 2005 and like Nessma TV was permitted to operate as a private channel by Ben Ali because its owners had close ties to the government. It has traditionally eschewed political content and instead focuses on entertainment, films and sport. In 2008, the channel’s founder, Larbi Nasra, created Hannibal Elferdaws (Hannibal Paradise), Tunisia’s first channel dedicated to religious programming.

Foreign TV Channels

The Oxford Business Group reported in 2010 that 77 per cent of Tunisians (no indication of age range) had access to foreign satellite programming and pan-Arab television channels were ‘particularly popular’.

Radio

Radio is the second most popular medium in Tunisia behind television, with Reporters Without Borders observing that 67 per cent of Tunisians follow the news through radio coverage.

State-operated Radio Stations
The Tunisian state operates four national stations, including Radio Tunis, which has been on the air since 1938. The government now offers Radio Tunis International, broadcasting predominantly in French, as well as Culture Radio and Youth Radio. Also offered are five regional stations, whereas in the past all radio broadcasts were centralized in the capital.

StationPercentage of Audience Share
Mosaique FM24.9%
Shems FM11.1%
Zitouna12.7%
Jawhara FM9.1%
Radio Tunis6.3%

Table 2. Most popular Tunisian domestic radio stations by audience share (2015). Source: Sigma Conseil.

State-owned Radio Stations
The Tunisian government is the majority stakeholder (70 per cent) in Shems FM, which was established in 2010 and gained popularity with its news programming and interviews, and Zitouna (100 per cent), established in 2007 and airing exclusively religious content. Both broadcast nationally.

Private Radio Stations
Private radio stations were permitted in 2003, although their owners had close ties to the Ben Ali government. Mosaique FM launched that year. It is now the most listened-to radio station in Tunisia and airs programmes dealing with local social topics and news. Jawhara FM, established in 2005, focuses more on entertainment, sports and music programming, and is considered the most popular channel in the Sahel region.

Press

Newspapers in Tunisia have traditionally lacked the penetration and influence of radio and television. Survey data from Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) revealed that 12 per cent of Tunisians claim to read a newspaper every day. Furthermore, there is a distinction between the roles of the Arabic- and French-language press, with the former garnering greater readership whereas the latter remains associated with the elite. Reporters Without Borders estimates that 76 per cent of Tunisian newspaper consumers read Arabic publications.

Before the 2011 revolution, government approval was required in order to establish an ‘independent’ newspaper, meaning that almost all publications toed the government line. In the deregulated post-revolution environment there was an initial surge in new publications, however financial costs and a general readership decline have triggered a move towards electronic platforms.

French Language

  • Tunisia Media La Presse
    La Presse, Tunisia’s leading French-language daily. Photo Flickr

    La Presse – State-owned newspaper and the country’s leading French-language daily publication. It was established in 1934, in the French government’s heavily censored media environment, although it managed to maintain close links to Tunisia’s nationalist movement. The newspaper served as a mouthpiece for both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. Since 2011, it has demonstrated a marked degree of independence, however it remains a state publication.

  • Le Temps – Privately owned daily established in 1975 and printed by major publishing house Dar Assabah. Pre-2011, its ability to operate as a private publication was contingent on its owners maintaining close government ties. In 2012, the newspaper published a blank editorial on its front page in protest at the government appointing a new director to Dar Assabah.

Arabic Language

  • Essahafa – State-owned sister publication of La Presse, established in 1989. The newspaper was threatened with closure due to financial difficulties in 2011, but remains in circulation. It has maintained a pro-government line and has championed the government’s state of emergency following the 2015 terrorist attacks.

  • Assabah – Private daily newspaper founded in 1951, part of the same publishing house as Le Temps. Its staff joined Le Temps in protesting against the state appointment of Dar  Assabah’s director in 2012.

  • Al-Chourouk – Privately owned and the best-selling newspaper in Tunisia. Established in 1984 and became a daily publication in 1988. Known to practise self-censorship in the Ben Ali era, once dismissing a freelance contributor for interviewing government critics, the newspaper has adopted a more independent tone since 2011, and has spoken out recently against endemic corruption.

Social Media

The popularity of social media platforms has risen sharply in recent years, in parallel with increased internet access and faster connections. Like other North African countries, Facebook is overwhelmingly the most popular platform in Tunisia, and is increasingly being used as a source of news. Research undertaken in 2013 by private media communications firm UM Digital Tunisie found that 3.4 million Tunisians were registered on Facebook. By contrast, the country only has 10,800 Twitter users. YouTube has experienced a surge in popularity due to its usage in the 2011 revolution, with users uploading 420 per cent more content in 2011 than 2010, and viewing figures increasing by 100 per cent. The site now attracts over 400,000 daily views from Tunisia.

NU-Q’s 2015 survey found that 53 per cent of Tunisians felt ‘it is safe to say whatever one thinks about politics online’. Nevertheless, social media users in Tunisia continue to face restrictions and even criminal charges.

The most prominent example in recent years is that of Yassine Ayari, sentenced in absentia in 2014 to three years imprisonment for posting messages on Facebook that criticized the Tunisian Minister of Defense. Ayari’s sentence was subsequently reduced and he was released in April 2015, after the case attracted global attention as an example of ongoing government efforts to curb freedom of expression following the revolution.

In 2016, human rights watchdog Article 19 expressed concern about Tunisia’s persistent recourse to military courts to try journalists and bloggers, despite Ayari’s 2015 release. In October, a Tunisian military court issued its latest civilian arrest warrant, indicting the director of online publication Al-Thawra News for a journal article that was deemed offensive.

Online Publications

Post-revolution Tunisia’s media landscape features a particularly dynamic online publications sector. Even prior to the revolution, publications such as Jeune Afrique, a weekly news magazine that was founded in Tunis in 1960 but subjected to government pressures and ultimately relocated to Paris, were able to connect with a Tunisian audience via the internet.

Numerous online newspapers have launched in recent years, avoiding the traditional press outlets and instead seeking to attract Tunisia’s growing online audience. Tunisia Live, the country’s self-proclaimed first ‘independent English-language news outlet’, launched during the 2011 revolution and garnered international attention as a credible source of events on the ground.

Inkyfada was launched by Tunisian journalists in 2014 as a platform utilizing data visualization to cover complex stories. The website has recently published excerpts from the Panama Papers, implicating Tunisian officials in financial misdemeanours.

Kapitalis is a French-language online newspaper  launched in 2010 that focuses on economic news. However, it has built a reputation among international human rights groups for covering contentious issues in Tunisian society, from ongoing violations of freedom of expression to state-sponsored homophobic abuse.