The media in Tunisia has undergone drastic changes since the country’s 2011 revolution. From content that was once uniform and restricted in the extreme, Tunisian media outlets have moved away from echoing the state line and are now providing diverse output. A host of new media outlets have cropped up. The legal framework and state institutions governing the industry are undergoing reform. And most importantly, journalists are now able to experience political journalism firsthand.
But though the groundwork is largely in place for a free and unbiased media landscape, journalists continue to operate without appropriate resources and training, and under questionable professional standards—dubious editorial qualities that are reflected in tabloid-style publications. As a reporter from Réalités magazine aptly described, after the fall of President Ben Ali, “we could finally say all we wanted, we could interview any political figure we wanted, we could even slam any of them. We were free.” Those journalists, so long prohibited from fully practicing their trade, remain unable to translate this acquired freedom into professional media practices.
The Tunisian media is still a venue for manipulation, intimidation, and bias. Media outlets are becoming the main stage for the fierce political and ideological battle between the country’s opposing camps: conservative Islamists and secular elitists. Ennahda, the Islamist winner of the first free elections in the history of this deeply secular country, gradually awakened to the ongoing influence of the national media and turned to old regime tactics. The Islamist party and its supporters are raising their voices against what they view as the “leftist lobbies” that are turning the media into a weapon against government policies.
The true liberalisation of the media sector will be impossible without the training that instills professional standards in the industry and helps members of the Tunisian media overcome entrenched habits. Guaranteeing journalists a degree of job security must also be a priority. As long as working conditions remain a concern and journalists are unable to secure decent contracts with reasonable stability and salaries, the quality of content will not be a priority.
In its most recent Press Freedom Index (2011–2012), Reporters Without Borders rated Tunisia 134, up from 164 in the previous ranking. The media watchdog praised “the end of the harassment of journalists by the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime, the emergence of real pluralism of opinion in the print media and, albeit possibly only for the time being, the end of massive and systematic Internet filtering.” However, the report also notes that “the recent appointments of persons with links to the old regime to run the state-owned media underscored the danger of a return to the past.”
The newfound freedom of expression permitted by Tunisia’s post-revolutionary environment is not unique in the history of the country. Several short periods of political openness have in the past allowed the Tunisian media to enjoy the luxury of criticizing the regime. However, this liberty was later revealed to be a tool for appeasing socioeconomic tensions, usually kept under wraps by a complete media blackout.
The crucial task is now to investigate the real impact of this new media liberalisation: Will it lead to a solid, independent media, rooted in professional and responsible journalism? Or will this new spring vanish and be replaced by a winter of agenda wars in the media? Some of the earlier challenges and dangers remain prominent—namely, the appetite of the new rulers for using old mechanisms of media control, as well as the inability of journalists to distance themselves from belligerent political agendas. Journalists must transcend the former definition of their role as simple messengers of government policy. A lasting renaissance of the Tunisian media requires vigilance on the part of the media community itself, and an awareness of its role as the barometer of the country’s new democracy.
This is an extract from a Carnegie paper and a Polis/LSE research project, which was originally published here. The paper draws on the main findings of the project “Arab Revolutions: media Revolutions” of Polis/LSE investigating transformations within mainstream national Arab media under political transitions.
Fatima el-Issawi is a research fellow at POLIS, the journalism and society think tank in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics (LSE). She is leading the research project on “Arab Revolutions: Media Revolutions,” which looks at the transformations in the Arab media industry under the transitional political phases within the current uprisings. She has over fifteen years of experience in covering the Middle East for international media outlets. She also works as an independent journalist, analyst, and trainer in the Arab world.