Although a year and a half has passed since the Tunisian revolution broke out, Tunisian journalists say they experience very little press freedom and almost no legal recourse to protect their profession.

Although a year and a half has passed since the Tunisian revolution broke out, Tunisian journalists say they experience very little press freedom and almost no legal recourse to protect their profession.

At a forum held in Tunis late last month about the state of Tunisian media, Saeed Al-Khuzami, the chief news editor of National TV Channel 1, claimed that the government and presidency pressurized him and his news staff to modify their news content to cover the activities and achievements of the two presidencies. The Union of Tunisian Journalists, (UTJ) has, on many occasions, warned against this intervention and the attempts to control the media and jeopardize its independence.

Journalists have also expressed concern about repeated attacks against them from groups closely linked to the government. Last spring one such a group staged a sit-in in front of the public TV headquarters, the purpose of which, it was said, was to purge the media. The strike ended with clashes between demonstrators and journalists, prompting the UTJ members to describe what happened as a “black cloud” over Tunisian media.

International watchdogs Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch condemned the repeated attacks on Tunisian journalists and the restrictions on the media freedom margin, viewed as the most important gain made since the collapse of the former regime on January 14, 2011.


Tug of war

The relationship between the transitional government led by the Ennahda Party and the Tunisian media is often described as a tug of war.  The Ennahda Party has classified the media as an “enemy of the revolution” and a “spearhead of counter-revolution”.  The ruling party has also accused the media of being biased towards the leftist parties and to the “thugs” of Ben Ali’s regime; going so far as to threaten privatization of the public media.

The government, especially Ennahda supporters, have used the accusation of “belonging to the former regime” to describe journalists and activists who criticize them, as well as the media, which allegedly pursues editorial anti-government policies. The UTJ Chairperson, Najiba al-Hamrouni, has expressed astonishment at that tendency and considered it part of a scheme to antagonize journalists who disobey government orders, and to attack the media and cause it to back down.

“The government wants to control the media,” Al-Hamrouni said. She stressed that there were several indications of the government’s desire to “tame” and dominate the media, such as delaying the activation of Decrees 115 (Press Law) and 116 (creating a regulatory body for the audiovisual media sector) issued in November 2011.

The UTJ and the National Authority for Reform of Information and Communication (NARIC) consider these decrees essential because they will regulate the audiovisual media sector and limit supervision and regulation to an independent public body, whose structure is composed of nine independent figures known for their expertise, competence and integrity in the areas of information and communication.

Al-Hamrouni said the transitional government was not satisfied with the members’ composition and demanded larger representation, considering that Decree 116, provided in clause 19—the Supreme Commission for Audiovisual Communication shall have the power to appoint the officials in charge of public audiovisual communication— which marks the end of an era of government dominance over the media.

Antagonizing the Media

The transitional government’s treatment of the media has been criticized by Waddah Khanfar, the former director of Al-Jazeera news network. In a statement made during the opening ceremony of the 9th Congress of Ennahda Party on 12 July 2012, Waddah stressed that “antagonizing the media” is a mistake which should stop. He considered that the criterion for evaluating media performance must lie in “professionalism and skill, not political loyalty.”

The Ennahda Party has previously spoken highly of the professionalism of Al-Jazeera and the “integrity of its staff.”

Another embarrassing blow to the government was the collective resignation of all NARIC members. The NARIC Chairperson, Mr. Kamal Al-Obeidi, ascribed the reasons of resignation to the “legal abuses by the government of the media sector” and the failure to take any initiative or steps in the direction of media reform. Al-Obeidi also criticized the government failure to take into consideration the recommendations made by the Commission in the report prepared last April, which was presented to the three presidencies and members of the Constituent Assembly and the general public.


Kamal Al-Obeidi

NARIC and UTJ had already boycotted the “national consultations on the legal framework for the media sector” organized by the government last April, without consulting the concerned bodies and organizations.

Tit for Tat

The government was surprised at the decision and expressed its astonishment vis-à-vis the collective resignation of the commission without consulting or notifying the concerned supervisory authority.

The transitional government spokesman, Samir Dilou, said in a statement “the accusation that we were attempting to dominate the media is false.” He also stressed that the government and Ennahda Party believed in the necessity of providing a “climate of freedom and independence for the media.”

Dillou spared no occasion to indicate that some media outlets acted with prejudice against the government and Ennahda Party. Such a grudge, he said, would not be retaliated with an “intention to dominate the media sector.”

However, Ennahda leader Rashid al-Ghannushi had previously described public media as having a “heavy-handed treatment of the party and the government” for “serving certain anti-revolution and anti-Ennahda ideological tendencies.” He also said that the media “highlights negative aspects, obscures facts, and blacks out the positive aspects.” He threatened, at a press meeting, to privatize the media sector, which roused the anger of media circles and ordinary citizens, alike.

Opposition parties cited these statements to warn the public about Ennahda’s desire to dominate the media and transform it into a “propaganda mouthpiece” and to “market fictitious achievements,” in preparation for the upcoming elections, according to what Iyad Dahmani, member of the National Constituent Assembly for the Republican Party.

Yet protection of media freedoms are a pressing matter for journalists, especially since the constitution will be drafted next year, regardless of whom the people ultimately vote in as the new government.