Journalists hold press cards during a protest at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis in April 2019. Tunisia has greater press freedom but challenges remain. (AFP/Fethi Belaid)
Journalists hold press cards during a protest at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis in April 2019. Tunisia has greater press freedom but challenges remain. (AFP/Fethi Belaid)

Upcoming elections could make or break Tunisia’s fledgling free press

Tunisia’s progression to a freer society took center stage this month, as journalists, digital rights activists, and tech companies gathered in Tunis for RightsCon and the IFJ congress. Tunisia has secured greater press freedom than many of the Arab Spring countries, but local journalists told CPJ that with elections slated for this year, challenges including funding, transparency, and government pressure remain.

Tunisian journalists were all welcoming smiles this month. RightsCon, an annual gathering of the world’s digital freedom fighters and Silicon Valley companies, was in town. So too was the International Federation of Journalists for its 30th annual congress.

The presence of so many champions of freedom of expression was a point of pride for many, an acknowledgement of Tunisia’s transition from the stifling dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to a democracy with a relatively free press.

By any measure, Tunisia’s 12 million people enjoy the freest media of any of the 22 countries that make up the Arab world.

“You can now criticize, even insult, the president, the prime minister or the head of parliament and not feel threatened,” said Fahem Boukadous, executive director of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, who was sentenced to four years in prison for his reporting under Ben Ali. “There is no fear any more. Eight years after the revolution journalists are on the offensive.”

That fighting spirit is being tested, however, as Tunisia gears up for parliamentary and presidential elections. Despite a ban on foreign funding, many of the independent journalists who spoke with CPJ said they believe Gulf money is secretly pouring in to campaigns, although they often lack the means to expose it. Businessmen and politicians are also using privately owned media companies and the government is harnessing public broadcasters to further their political agendas.

The task of ensuring the integrity of the elections is increasingly falling to a small number of independent regulatory bodies set up after the revolution and to the fledgling independent press.

Tunisia, cradle of the so-called Arab Spring, held elections in 2011 and 2014, and has managed partly through a coalition of secular and Islamist parties, to avoid widespread bloodshed and hang on to some of the civil rights benefits of the uprising, unlike Egypt, Syria or Libya. But the political situation is still shaky. The country has had 10 governments in eight years and the economy continues to slide, with tourism still suffering from two terrorist attacks in 2015, which killed 60 people, most foreigners.

“In the 2014 election there was foreign money funding campaigns and it’s the same again,” said Amal Mekki, a Tunisian freelance investigative journalist. “But now there is more collaboration between politicians and business,” she added, referring to campaign financing for a parliamentary election slated for October 6, and a presidential poll on November 17.

Journalists speak privately of money from the United Arab Emirates flowing to establishment politicians and funds from Qatar to Islamists but there is little published evidence of this.

“There is regional money being spent in order to steer the political process,” said Boukadous. “Where it’s coming from we don’t know.” The 49-year-old journalist complained of government inaction in bringing transparency to campaign and media outlet funding. “It is up to the media regulatory authority to publish this information but the national bank and executive authorities have not implemented laws for us to know how these large TV stations and networks get their money.”

Even when authorities do act, success is only partial. Broadcast regulator HAICA (the Independent High Authority of Audiovisual Communication) pulled the license of privately owned TV channel Nesma in July 2018, for pushing the political agenda of its owner Nabil Karoui, who planned to run for president. Police raided the station in April, but the channel is still on the air, only without a license. On June 18, however, parliament amended an election law to bar candidates who received foreign funding during the year before an election: a move that would, in effect, exclude Karoui from running. He told Reuters the law was an attempt to silence him because the government feared his popularity in polls.

Money still talks loudly in Tunisia where unemployment is officially above 15 percent and many journalists are paid badly.

“Political parties do attempt to buy off journalists,” Boukadous acknowledged.

Reporters are hampered in their watchdog role by the government too, especially if they cover national security or police beats. In January last year, Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem admitted during a parliamentary hearing that Tunisian journalists were monitored and that he had even authorized the wiretapping of a French journalist covering unrest.

Journalists like Mekki, 29, acknowledge that they have more freedom than those of Boukadous’s generation, but they are still critical of the government. Tunisia has a world class right to information law on the books but Mekki said her attempts to get the Interior Ministry to disclose details of travel bans imposed on hundreds of young Tunisians have been stonewalled.

“We are moving up the international press freedom index, but on the ground we journalists have many problems, more than three or four years ago” Mekki said, adding that a lack of transparency around media ownership, undisclosed campaign contributions to candidates and the use of public resources and public media by the current government to promote partisan agendas are challenges to independent media coverage.

Still the heads of post-revolution bodies like HAICA and the Independent High Electoral Commission (both of whom met with CPJ during its mission to Tunis) are determined to do their jobs, which should help the press cover the campaigns. Nabil Baffoun, president of the election commission, said he was concerned about “fake news” and planned to meet with representatives of Facebook to discuss how Tunisians would be spared the worst excesses of misinformation. One idea the commission is mulling is a fact-checking cooperative along the lines of the “Verificado (Verified) 2018” website set up in Mexico to counter misinformation during its presidential campaign.

Boukadous was optimistic that the media is up to the task of covering the campaign and cementing the freedom of expression gains won since Ben Ali’s ouster.

“In Tunisia we have a unique situation where we have a weak government, weak political parties but strong civil society, which can work to guarantee the democratic transition overall and with that, press freedom gains,” he said.

Many of the journalists with whom CPJ met put their faith in non-government groups to anchor the political and social reforms already introduced.

“What we gained most after the revolution is freedom of expression and now it is really threatened,” said Mekki. “The elections will be an historic moment. My only hope is that the Tunisian people, and Tunisian women in particular, will do their best to protect these gains, but with mass media and dirty money, the mission will be really tough.”

[Reporting from Tunis]