Tunisia’s Media Landscape: An Overview
Freedom of Expression
Prior to the protests that led to the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia’s media landscape was highly regulated and bureaucratic. Newspapers were introduced in the late 19th century under French colonial rule, with the majority of publications promoting French interests. Censorship was prevalent and, in 1933, the French authorities closed down all newspapers expressing nationalist sentiments. This included La Voix du Tunisien, which featured the writings of future president Habib Bourguiba.
After Bourguiba assumed power following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the printed press continued to be closely controlled and reflected the views of the ruling party. When Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in 1987, a modest increase in press freedom and opposition views was permitted. However, Ben Ali’s reign was characterized by a division of press ownership between the state, private publications that were loyal to the government and a small opposition press segment that was financially starved and politically repressed. Tunisia’s post-2011 newspaper industry has sought to better reflect public sentiments and a variety of new publications has emerged. Yet the country’s transition toward an open press has slowed in recent years.
Radio and television were the primary means for both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali governments to disseminate information. The state’s initial television operator, Radio diffusion-Télévision Tunisienne (RTT), began broadcasting in 1966 and achieved nationwide broadcasts of its flagship channel Télévision Tunisienne 1 by 1971. The channel was later renamed Tunisie 7 after Ben Ali assumed power, and the new president also introduced a second terrestrial channel, Tunisie 21, in an attempt to appeal to younger audiences. The government monopolized broadcasting until the introduction of satellite television in 1992. Even then it was not until the 21st century that Ben Ali approved the establishment of two private satellite channels, both with close ties to the ruling elite and restricted from airing political content.
Following the 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s two state public channels were renamed El Wataniya 1 and 2, whereas the national radio and television operator, Établissement de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Tunisienne (ERTT), was restructured and more diverse programming produced, with opposition groups granted airtime. Since 2011, the BBC reports that at least ten new private channels have launched.
Radio in the Bourguiba era bore similarities to television in terms of being a fully state-operated enterprise and serving the government agenda. Under Ben Ali, five private radio stations were sanctioned, but only one was permitted to broadcast nationwide and all had strong links to the government. Before 2011, independent stations were restricted to broadcasting online from outside the country.
The internet became publicly available in 1996, with broadband connectivity introduced in 2003. In 2016, Tunisia’s internet penetration stands at 52.1 per cent of the population, one of the highest rates in North Africa.
Freedom of Expression
Tunisia is ranked 96th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The country’s transition to democracy following the 2011 revolution reached an important milestone with the passing of two new laws: Decree 115 on the Press, Printing and Publishing, and Decree 116 on the Freedom of Audiovisual Communication.
The laws were meant to replace the restrictive legislation of the 1975 Press Code, for example prison terms for ‘defamation’ and ‘insult’ were scrapped, journalists were provided greater freedom of information rights and the Interior Ministry was awarded less scope to intervene in media affairs.
In 2014, a new constitution was signed, guaranteeing freedom of expression. Article 31 states: ‘Freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication shall be guaranteed. These freedoms shall not be subject to prior censorship.’
Whereas prospects for greater freedom of expression seemed largely promising in the post-revolution environment, Tunisia’s progress in this regard remains problematic. Despite amendments to the press code, laws enshrined during Ben Ali’s reign mean that some journalistic offences, including defamation, are still criminalized under the penal code, and these have yet to be revised. Freedom of expression suffered a serious blow in November 2015, when a nationwide state of emergency was declared following a series of terrorist attacks. The emergency powers are still in force and grant the government the right to censor media products.
The country’s ongoing domestic struggle with an Islamic extremist movement has led to a more cautious media environment. In the past two years, Tunisian journalists have reported receiving death threats purportedly sent by radical Islamic groups opposing their views, whereas security authorities, increasingly sensitive to the extremist presence in the country, have used coercion, intimidation and even physical assault to ensure the press does not contradict the official version of counterterrorism events.
Television is the most influential media platform in Tunisia. In 2015, BBC Media Action reported that 88 per cent of Tunisians aged 16 and over watched television ‘at least once per day’, and 83 per cent considered television their top source of political and current affairs information.
|Channel||Percentage of Audience Share|
|El Hiwar El Tounsi||26.7%|
|El Wataniya 1||15.6%|
|El Wataniya 2||7.8%|
Table 1. Most popular domestic channels by audience share (2015). Source: Sigma Conseil.
Foreign TV Channels
The Oxford Business Group reported in 2010 that 77 per cent of Tunisians (no indication of age range) had access to foreign satellite programming and pan-Arab television channels were ‘particularly popular’.
Radio is the second most popular medium in Tunisia behind television, with Reporters Without Borders observing that 67 per cent of Tunisians follow the news through radio coverage.
State-operated Radio Stations
The Tunisian state operates four national stations, including Radio Tunis, which has been on the air since 1938. The government now offers Radio Tunis International, broadcasting predominantly in French, as well as Culture Radio and Youth Radio. Also offered are five regional stations, whereas in the past all radio broadcasts were centralized in the capital.
|Station||Percentage of Audience Share|
Table 2. Most popular Tunisian domestic radio stations by audience share (2015). Source: Sigma Conseil.
State-owned Radio Stations
The Tunisian government is the majority stakeholder (70 per cent) in Shems FM, which was established in 2010 and gained popularity with its news programming and interviews, and Zitouna (100 per cent), established in 2007 and airing exclusively religious content. Both broadcast nationally.
Private Radio Stations
Private radio stations were permitted in 2003, although their owners had close ties to the Ben Ali government. Mosaique FM launched that year. It is now the most listened-to radio station in Tunisia and airs programmes dealing with local social topics and news. Jawhara FM, established in 2005, focuses more on entertainment, sports and music programming, and is considered the most popular channel in the Sahel region.
Newspapers in Tunisia have traditionally lacked the penetration and influence of radio and television. Survey data from Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) revealed that 12 per cent of Tunisians claim to read a newspaper every day. Furthermore, there is a distinction between the roles of the Arabic- and French-language press, with the former garnering greater readership whereas the latter remains associated with the elite. Reporters Without Borders estimates that 76 per cent of Tunisian newspaper consumers read Arabic publications.
Before the 2011 revolution, government approval was required in order to establish an ‘independent’ newspaper, meaning that almost all publications toed the government line. In the deregulated post-revolution environment there was an initial surge in new publications, however financial costs and a general readership decline have triggered a move towards electronic platforms.
The popularity of social media platforms has risen sharply in recent years, in parallel with increased internet access and faster connections. Like other North African countries, Facebook is overwhelmingly the most popular platform in Tunisia, and is increasingly being used as a source of news. Research undertaken in 2013 by private media communications firm UM Digital Tunisie found that 3.4 million Tunisians were registered on Facebook. By contrast, the country only has 10,800 Twitter users. YouTube has experienced a surge in popularity due to its usage in the 2011 revolution, with users uploading 420 per cent more content in 2011 than 2010, and viewing figures increasing by 100 per cent. The site now attracts over 400,000 daily views from Tunisia.
NU-Q’s 2015 survey found that 53 per cent of Tunisians felt ‘it is safe to say whatever one thinks about politics online’. Nevertheless, social media users in Tunisia continue to face restrictions and even criminal charges.
The most prominent example in recent years is that of Yassine Ayari, sentenced in absentia in 2014 to three years imprisonment for posting messages on Facebook that criticized the Tunisian Minister of Defense. Ayari’s sentence was subsequently reduced and he was released in April 2015, after the case attracted global attention as an example of ongoing government efforts to curb freedom of expression following the revolution.
In 2016, human rights watchdog Article 19 expressed concern about Tunisia’s persistent recourse to military courts to try journalists and bloggers, despite Ayari’s 2015 release. In October, a Tunisian military court issued its latest civilian arrest warrant, indicting the director of online publication Al-Thawra News for a journal article that was deemed offensive.
Post-revolution Tunisia’s media landscape features a particularly dynamic online publications sector. Even prior to the revolution, publications such as Jeune Afrique, a weekly news magazine that was founded in Tunis in 1960 but subjected to government pressures and ultimately relocated to Paris, were able to connect with a Tunisian audience via the internet.
Numerous online newspapers have launched in recent years, avoiding the traditional press outlets and instead seeking to attract Tunisia’s growing online audience. Tunisia Live, the country’s self-proclaimed first ‘independent English-language news outlet’, launched during the 2011 revolution and garnered international attention as a credible source of events on the ground.
Inkyfada was launched by Tunisian journalists in 2014 as a platform utilizing data visualization to cover complex stories. The website has recently published excerpts from the Panama Papers, implicating Tunisian officials in financial misdemeanours.
Kapitalis is a French-language online newspaper launched in 2010 that focuses on economic news. However, it has built a reputation among international human rights groups for covering contentious issues in Tunisian society, from ongoing violations of freedom of expression to state-sponsored homophobic abuse.
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