Tunisian media in flux since revolution

Newfound freedom has raised new questions about transparency, objectivity and the need for editorial independence.

Telvza TV is the most recent addition to Tunisia's broadcast landscape [Aymen Ben Mansour/Al Jazeera]

Once restricted to those who supported the authoritarian regime, Tunisia’s media sector has rapidly expanded since the fall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Dozens of new ventures were launched as restrictions on media ownership were removed and the old regime’s censorship practices disappeared. In the freer post-revolution atmosphere, many with political connections and ambitions rushed to acquire their own outlets. Political talk shows now dominate primetime, while satirical puppet shows mock the country’s leading politicians.

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But the newfound freedom has raised new questions about transparency and objectivity, prompting the country’s recently formed broadcast regulator to compose new rules banning the exploitation of privately-owned TV and radio stations for partisan propaganda. The High Independent Board of Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), established last year after months of political disputes over its membership, says the changes are necessary to ensure editorial independence. 

Opposition or ruling political parties always seek to control the media because it is powerful.

by Dalila Ben Mbarek Msadek, Telvza TV talk show host

“The HAICA is seeking to separate media from politics,” board member Hichem Snoussi told Al Jazeera.

The board, with a function similar to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, includes members chosen by journalists, media owners and the three branches of government. It is still struggling to establish its authority; the regulations released in March deal with television and radio-station licensing, media ethics and financial transparency.

A key issue for HAICA has been governmental appointments to state-owned media outlets. In February, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa agreed to involve the board in the appointment of state-owned media outlets. HAICA had previously criticised former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh for ignoring a decree on media freedom that allows the board to nominate heads of public media outlets.

HAICA also accused a government appointee of editorial interference with state-owned radio stations, alleging a pro-government bias. 

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The media landscape has changed rapidly since Ben Ali’s ouster. In May 2012, the Zeitouna television station launched. Seen as pro-government, it is run by Oussama Ben Salem, son of Moncef Ben Salem, a leader of the powerful Ennahdha party.

Last July, Slim Riahi, a wealthy Tunisian businessman and founder of the Free Patriotic Union party, launched three TV channels: Ettounsiya Al-Oula, Ettounsiya Sport and Ettounsiya News.

Owners of private television stations under the Ben Ali regime have also taken advantage of the new environment to become politicians themselves. Larbi Nasra, who founded Tunisia’s first private television station in 2005, now leads a political party holding 12 seats in parliament. Nabil Karoui, co-owner of the Nessma station, recently launched his own political party, Tahya Tounes.

Telvza TV is the most recent addition to Tunisia’s broadcast landscape, and seeks to differentiate itself through its business model. The station was launched in mid-December by a group of journalists and is partially self-funded, with participants each owning no more than three percent of the venture.

“Opposition or ruling political parties always seek to control the media because it is powerful,” Dalila Ben Mbarek Msadek, host of a political talk show on Telvza TV, told Al Jazeera. “Today the media in Tunisia is the first branch of government and not the fourth.”

Ben Mbarek Msadek sees the station as a more independent voice in the Tunisian media landscape, although it is not apolitical.

There is no tradition of regional media. This is an idea that came after the revolution.

by Ibrahim Slimi, Radio Karima journalist

“We are objective, in the sense that we deliver news objectively. However, we are not neutral,” she said. “We have our own values, which we believe in, and we have our project – a project for a democratic, progressive and developed Tunisia.”

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While these disputes over media ownership and regulation are concentrated around media based in Tunis, the country’s coastal capital, journalists in other parts of the country say they face more fundamental problems. Tunisians in the poor and underdeveloped inland regions say the Tunis-based stations ignore or simply do not understand them.

In the wake of the 2011 revolution, local radio stations have sprung up in an effort to bridge these gaps and give voice to poorer rural communities.

Radio Karima from Sidi Bouzid is one example. Often considered the birthplace of the 2011 revolution, it was there in December 2010 that Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who felt mistreated by the police, set himself on fire, sparking a wave of protests that led to the fall of Tunisia’s former president.

“There is no tradition of regional media,” Ibrahim Slimi, a Radio Karima journalist, told Al Jazeera. “This is an idea that came after the revolution.”

Ridha Homdi, also a Karima journalist, said despite the fall of the old regime, there is still a kind of dictatorship in place. The media, he said, is controlled by the capital, with its message forced on those in the interior regions. Journalists from the capital look down on journalists working out of the regions, pressing officials to treat them less favourably, he said. Meanwhile, certain news from the regions either fails to travel to the capital or is misreported, Homdi added; for instance, a benign fire might be spun into an act of “terrorism.” Other issues, such as rural poverty, tend to be ignored.

Slimi views Radio Karima as a tool for furthering development in areas like Sidi Bouzid.

“When the media covers all regions equally, we’ll have less antagonism, humiliation, and injustice,” he said. “When the voice of citizens here reaches officials, this will be a form of development.”

Robert Joyce, Mohamed M’dalla and Tristan Dreisbach contributed to this article.