Tunisians often joke that the country has gone “from ten million soccer coaches to ten million political analysts." Indeed, freedom of expression is counted as one of the great achievements of the Tunisian uprising. But since April 2012, a series of appointments by Prime Minister Hamadi Jbeli have raised concerns about the future of free expression and media independence.The positions in question were: head of national radio agency, the head of the national television network, and the chairman of the board of directors for the state-run media institution Dar Assabah, which publishes two major daily newspapers, Assabah and Le Temps, and three weeklies. Those named to fill these posts—Mohamed Meddeb, Imen Bahroun, and Lotfi Touati, respectively—are all associated with the old regime, and some observers view these appointments as a threat to the country’s nascent independent press and freedom of expression—in essence these appointments have highlighted a fear of a return to the past.
In response, the Tunisian Journalists' Union (French acronym, SNJT) called for a national strike on October 17 to protest these appointments and defend press freedom in general. Journalists from national radio have repeatedly organized sit-ins, and their colleagues from Dar Assabah have been on an open-ended protest, organizing two hunger strikes in October. This forced the government’s hand into negotiations that have led to compromise: Lotfi Touati was dismissed and journalists’ smaller demands have been met—like access to contracts and increases in salaries. But the broader future of the institution and role of the media in post-revolution Tunisia remains highly contested.
The press freedoms debate and the recent appointments reflect the broader political dispute between the government and the opposition parties. Large parts of the opposition found in the nominations yet another prove that the Ennahda-dominated government seeks to co-opt the country’s media institutions. This enhances the opposition’s line of argument: that Ennahda uses the old regime's methods to curb freedom of the media and hamper the country’s democratic transition. The ruling party in turn argues that the media itself remains dominated by those who, not too long ago, were sympathetic to Ben Ali. The public dispute, the government argues, serves as a way for journalists (particularly those who operated freely under the old regime) to regain credibility among the Tunisian public.
Certainly, the revolution brought significant gains in terms of pushback on censorship, but it also left the media without a clear legal framework. The National Authority to Reform Information and Communication (INRIC), which was created in March 2011, comprised of journalists and media law experts, proposed a framework for a new press code, adopted in November 2011, which was to replace Ben Ali's media framework. While these decrees—Law 115 (on print media and freedom of expression) and Law 116 (on audiovisual media)—were far from perfect, observers welcomed them as a good starting point. INRIC also recommended the creation of an independent regulation body, the High Authority of Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) to consult the government on the nomination of directors in the public audiovisual sector, to distribute licenses, and to oversee media standards. HAICA has yet to see the light of day. In July 2012, the INRIC resigned, citing the government’s unwillingness to implement Laws 115 and 116, and the overall lack of political will to support the greater media reform agenda.
While there is little indication that the government is intent on stripping independent media outlets of their independence, the lack of the political will to follow through on the promised media reforms, especially in the public sector, is glaring. In early November 2011, Laws 115 and 116 were ratified by the transitional government of Beji Caid Essebsi and signed by Fouad Mbazaa--at the time interim president. But the Troika (as the current coalition of Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for the Republic is locally known) has largely ignored these laws. Despite the decrees' acceptance and validity from a legal perspective, they have yet to be enforced. Judges often apply criminal law in trials concerning journalists and media enterprises—where the new code should apply with procedures specific to journalists.
In reaction to the national strike—which garnered wide participation and support—the government announced that the media laws will be applied immediately. Behind the scenes, the names of a possible HAICA head even began to circulate. But the government has not yet announced a clear time frame for that regulatory body’s creation. Zied El Heni, a board member of the Tunisian Journalists’ Union and the African Federation of Journalists, remained skeptical, and stressed that “When Ben Ali took power in 1987, he promised us all these things as well. As long as the laws are not in place, I won't believe in government promises."
The NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF)—which opened an office in Tunis in October 2011—is concerned about the targeting of journalists and the lack of a clear judicial framework. Numerous journalists and editors have been sent to trial for the disruption of public order in the past year. The organization has counted 130 attacks against press freedom since the beginning of the year, most of these consisting in physical violence against journalists. "These numbers are alarming, especially as none of these cases have been sanctioned,” says Olivia Gré, head of RSF’s Tunis office. She has welcomed that the new constitution will not contain a clause criminalizing blasphemy, as Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Constituent Assembly declared. "Jaafar’s announcement satisfies one of the main requests we recently expressed to the Tunisian authorities. Under the international standards that now prevail, using blasphemy legislation to restrict freedom of expression is unacceptable." However, a final text of the constitutional project to be voted by the Assembly has not been published yet, and members of the opposition fear that the notion of blasphemy might surface in the final text.
At the sit-in at Dar Assabah, philosopher Youssef Seddik, a well-known public figure and political commentator, noted that he had come to support his young colleagues on hunger strike. Seddik's weekly column was cut from Dar Assabah's Le Temps after criticizing the nomination of Touati, but he keeps faith in the independence of Tunisian media. "We are facing a dialectical movement of revolution and counter revolution," he says. "The fact that I can tell the Minister of the Interior on the public TV channel and on prime time to step down, the fact that we are sitting here and speaking openly without putting ourselves in danger proves that the revolution is real," Seddik argues.
While Tunisians won’t step back from expressing their opinions freely, the transition for the country’s media has yet to prove successful. A good first step though is to apply the new press code to ensure some degree of independence and to initiate a transition for state institutions toward true public service.
Sarah Mersch is a Tunisia-based freelance journalist.