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Tunisian journalists protest in front of the Prime Minister’s office in the capital Tunis on February 16, 2023, in defence of freedom of expression and against the persecution of journalists. Fethi Belaid/AFP

For Tunisia’s muzzled media, Arab Spring is now a distant memory

“Every afternoon before I leave the office, I turn off my phone and remove the SIM card. I don’t want to authorities to track my whereabouts.” Ayman (anonymised for protection) is one of Tunisia’s most prominent media profiles, and among the dwindling number of journalists who dare to criticise the authorities. Now he expects to be arrested any day. His boss was arrested and interrogated in February.

This is a far cry from the heady days after the fall of the country’s autocrat, Zinedine Ben Ali (1987-2011), when Tunisia’s media sector was revolutionised along with the rest of society. Like in Egypt, the 2011 Arab Spring resulted in the fall of a severely authoritarian regime. Until the fall of Ben Ali Tunisia was a veritable police state. Then, in a very short amount of time, Tunisians managed to set up new and democratic institutions, including a functioning parliament, an accountable presidency and independent courts.

The revolution also sowed the seeds of new and independent media outlets – radio, television and digital newspapers. The state television and radio company, al-Wataniyya, was redesigned to be a public broadcaster along the lines of BBC. The Journalists’ Syndicate proved to be an efficient protector of journalists’ professional rights vis-à-vis the authorities. Tunisians soon got used to critical news coverage and raucous political debates on prime-time TV. Now, all these gains are threatened and ordinary people do not even seem to mind much. What happened?

The dark side of free media

Since 2015, we have been studying media-politics relations in Tunisia as part of a research project on journalism in struggles for democracy. Over the last seven years, we have conducted 53 in-depth interviews and two focus group interviews with Tunisian journalists, activists and politicians. The aim of our interviews was to understand how journalists deal with media instrumentalisation and what political role they play in hybrid settings fluctuating between autocracy and democracy. Our last visit was in March 2023, one and a half years after President Kays Saïed abruptly suspended parliament.

But let us first rewind to 2011, when Tunisia went from a police state where the media was part of Ben Ali’s propaganda system to a suddenly free (and initially chaotic) media environment. The reshaping of the media scene took place in a context of political turmoil: a hybrid political situation of continuously contested democratisation in which political and business elites were eager to exploit the media for their own purposes. A textbook example of this was the behaviour of Nabil Karoui, a businessman who built his wealth on audiovisual production, digital media, and urban advertising and is CEO of the public relations firm Karoui & Karoui World. As the owner of Tunisia’s most popular TV channels, Nessma, he personally influenced its editorial policies while acting as communication advisor for ex-President Beji Caid Essebsi (2014-2019). Karoui also appeared in the documentary series Khalil Tunis, devoted to covering the activities of a charity he had set up to fight poverty – at the same time as he founded his own party and his presidential ambitions became ever clearer. While Karoui was a particularly blatant example of media instrumentalisation, many other politicians, media owners and public figures were involved in murky intrigues and deals.

Hard-working journalists in newspapers, radio and television saw the big gain from the revolution – free media – melt away before their eyes, as squabbling politicians and commentators for hire alienated the Tunisian populace from both politics and the news media.

Tunisian media magnate, Nabil Karoui (L); the country’s current president, Kais Saied. Hasna Fethi Belaida/AFP

Populism vs. journalism: President Kais Saïed and the media

Enter the presidential election of September 2019, which featured two dyed-in-the-wool populists as frontrunners. Both of them represented a danger to free and critical media, but in very different ways. Nabil Karoui, whom we have already mentioned, was a charismatic media magnate who used his own TV channel to manipulate the political climate. The Conservative Kais al-Saïed, who won the election with 72,71% votes, was a former university lecturer in law who preferred to avoid the news media altogether. Saïed was nicknamed “Robocop” on account of his mechanic style of talking in interviews. His campaign relied not on media, but on grassroots activists going from door to door and arranging public meetings across Tunisia.

Saïed treats the media with the same contempt as he has shown toward political parties and parliamentarism. Journalists we spoke with in March said that the public broadcasting company has been reduced to a propaganda outlet. Saïed avoids relating to the private media, and prefers communicating with the public through announcements on Facebook, a very important communication platform in Tunisia. When the media contact the president’s office for statements on current affairs they receive no reply. It was telling that when a new and tame parliament opened on 13 March, no journalists from independent or foreign media were allowed inside the building so as to prevent “disorder”.

The decline of journalism and the relativization of truth

The president’s antipathy toward the media goes hand in hand with his intolerance of criticism and predilection for conspiracy theories. His widely reported, racist rant against sub-Saharan Africans in February is only the tip of the iceberg. Several opposition leaders have been imprisoned since March, accused of “conspiring to undermine the state”. Noureddine Boutar, the head of Tunisia’s main independent radio channel, Mosaïque, was arrested in February on charges of ‘attacking the highest symbol of the state and exacerbating tensions in the country’. Journalists we met in March told us that they are accused of spreading fear among the public (now a punishable crime) when they simply report facts about Tunisia’s many economic and social problems.

Since rising to power in 2019, President Saied has increasingly zapped Tunisia’s freedom of speech. Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia, CC BY

There are still strong journalistic voices who speak out against the attacks on liberty of speech. When we interviewed officials at the Journalists’ Syndicate, they took it for granted that they were being surveilled, but they were as defiant as ever, having participated in a march for freedom a couple of days before we met them.

However, the bigger picture is gloomy. Political content has all but disappeared from the previously intensely political TV channels. Journalists who want to do political reporting have difficulties earning a living from it. Moreover, Saïed seems to have succeeded in convincing substantial parts of the population that the news media are part of the corrupt elites and not to be trusted. As a result, people get their news from rumours on Facebook. As one media scholar told us:

“I had problems convincing my own family that Saïed’s wildly exaggerated claims about the number of sub-Saharan African immigrants were necessarily absurd, because there are no epistemological authorities anymore. Announcements and rumours on Facebook have replaced fact-checked news as a source of information.”

The dearth of sober, critical journalism does nothing to reduce the intense polarisation in Tunisian politics between the president, the Islamists, and the reactionary Free Constitutional Party. They all have it in for journalists. Each camp constructs its own reality and viciously attacks those who challenge the relativisation of truth based on objective and critical reporting. We should not forget that Tunisian journalists can look to the United States, several European countries and Russia for parallels to their own situation. Sadly, that does not help them much. Critical, fact-based journalism is under threat in many purportedly free and pluralistic societies, and Tunisia is presently one of the hotspots.

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