Under Ben Ali, the Tunisian media suffered heavy censorship, and opposition voices were suppressed by the regime, which, directly or indirectly, controlled the media outlets. The privately-owned broadcast media, including Hannibal TV, Nessma TV, Radio Shems FM, and Radio Mosaïque FM, were headed by people with close connections to the former regime or by those who censored their own work. Even though censorship as a means of silencing the opposition was formally outlawed, self-censorship was omnipresent and undermined the freedom of the press. Rules enacted by the government under Ben Ali, such as the review of all press products by the Interior Ministry before publication, effectively nullified Tunisia’s freedom of the press. Hence, IREX’s Media Sustainability Index in 2009 gave Tunisia a low freedom-of-the-press score, of 0.56.
Despite the rigid control of the media, Tunisia’s Internet-based media still enjoyed considerable freedom, even though the government censored much online material. Yet, as the best Internet-connected country in Africa – in 2009, about 2.7 million Tunisians were Internet users – Tunisians could exploit new opportunities offered by the Web. In 2010, the Internet became a key means of organizing mass protests against the Ben Ali regime, which led to its ouster in early 2011.
Following the Tunisian revolution, press freedom received an initial boost, with new news outlets, full of formerly unheard voices, cropping up throughout the country. A National Authority for the Reform of Information and Communication was set up to draft new media laws in order to ensure the freedom of the press and, more generally, a viable media. On 20 September 2011, it was announced that 187 newspapers and reviews had been granted licences by the Interior Minister since the Tunisian revolution. Yet the main media outlets, including TV stations and newspapers, have seen little change in staff – they are still dominated by the people who worked for the media under the former regime. This has led many people to doubt their impartiality. In July 2012, in what was a major setback to Tunisia’s freedom of the press, the National Authority for the Reform of Information and Communication resigned, giving government censorship as a main reason. In addition, the reform commission criticised the government for not taking concrete steps to implement Decrees 115 and 116, which stipulate the protection of journalists and regulate new audio-visual media. Also, a wave of recent dismissals by the government of heads of state-owned radio and TV channels has caused an uproar in Tunisia, leading many inside and outside observers to fear a return to disinformation and censorship.
Since the Islamist-led government took power in October 2011, many journalists and leading media figures complain of an increase in social conservatism that prevents them from enjoying their right to free speech. Nabil Karoui, owner of the private Tunisian Nessma TV, for example, was fined for showing the film Persepolis, which was considered blasphemous. Two youths were sentenced to prison, for seven years, for posting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on the Internet. As a consequence, the Washington-based Freedom House classified in 2012 Tunisia’s access to the Internet as only ‘partly free’.