Growing Pains

The Tunisian media navigates a nascent democracy

01 December 2019
The 2012 strike by Tunisian journalists led to the government agreeing to implement media laws, rescind some political appointments and set up an independent broadcast authority.
fethi belaid / afp / getty images
The 2012 strike by Tunisian journalists led to the government agreeing to implement media laws, rescind some political appointments and set up an independent broadcast authority.
fethi belaid / afp / getty images

On 15 September, 26 candidates faced off in Tunisia’s presidential election, the second since the 23-year-long dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in the first protests of the 2011 Arab Spring. In the runoff, held on 13 October, the independent candidate Kais Saied, a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Tunis who was a political outsider when he declared his candidacy, defeated Nabil Karoui, a media baron who owns the television channel Nessma but has never held political office, in a landslide. Other countries in North Africa and West Asia have seen popular uprisings against authoritarian governments in 2011 not having success in the long run. Tunisia, on the other hand, has been able to hold on to its hard-won democracy, albeit with transitional challenges in a pluralistic society.

One critical institution that has thrived in Tunisia’s nascent democracy is a free press. Between 2010 and 2019, Tunisia’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by the media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières, has improved from 164 to 72. (Over the same time, India’s ranking has fallen from 122 to 140.) On 11 November 2018, the then Tunisian president, Beji Caid Essebsi, was one of the 12 original signatories of RSF’s International Declaration on Information and Democracy.

Following the uprising, the interim Tunisian government repealed the 1975 press code, which provided for heavy fines and imprisonment for journalism that was deemed to jeopardise state security and public order or cause offence to public figures. It passed two pieces of legislation—Decree Laws 115 and 116—that liberalised the legal and regulatory frameworks for broadcast and print media. Access to information is guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution, and in a review of the country’s 2016 right-to-information law, Human Rights Watch said the country “is once again leading the Arab world in promoting transparency in public institutions.” A new draft law, which is yet to be introduced in parliament, further strengthens provisions of existing laws and consolidates journalists’ safety and immunity.

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    Annie Philip is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She has worked with The Hindu, The Week and the online edition of the Indian Express.

    Keywords: media freedom Media Ownership Arab Spring Tunisia Right to Information strike
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