Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Tunisia's Crowded Media Scene
Ennahda, an Islamist party, is one of the few groups whose political ideology is known to many Tunisian voters. (Photo: Flickr/Magharebia)
In less than two months, Tunisians will elect an assembly that will shape their country’s political future direction. As several major parties and a multitude of smaller ones vie for places in the Constituent Assembly, their messages are often hard for voters to hear.
Numerous media outlets have sprung up since the authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January, so that Tunisians now have access to a huge range of print, broadcast and online sources. But these media sometimes put out biased or conflicting information about the parties.
Many voters appear undecided about which of the over 100 parties they will go for, and the chaotic media environment is not making the choice any easier.
Since the revolution, the Tunisian interior ministry has issued licenses to more than 100 newspapers and magazines.
Describing the vast number of newspapers that have appeared, Selima Chagra, a 30-year-old resident of the capital Tunis, said, “I saw more names than I could remember”.
Television has been slower to change, and the airwaves are still dominated by the same four channels – two state-run and two private – that served as bulwarks of Ben Ali’s rule. Given that the same staff are still working at them, many Tunisians question the credibility of the news on TV.
Saifallah Mehdi, a 27-year-old from Tunis, asked how he could trust TV when “the ones who used to praise him [Ben Ali] are now denouncing him”.
Chagra agreed, noting that Télévision Tunisienne, known as Tunisie 7 in Ben Ali’s time, used to say “great things” about the president.
“Now they change everything and say they are the voice of the people,” she added. “This is something that invoked the anger of everyone here, because it is not really the voice of the people. The channels have their own hidden agendas.”
Radio enjoys a higher level of confidence as a source of political news.
“The trusted media is the radio,” Mehdi said. The radio people are doing good stuff. They are being neutral. They let the people talk. They ask questions. They give the population the freedom to think, to choose.”
Walid Besbes, communications director at Radio Jawhara in Tunis, agreed that the medium had adapted.
“We can talk more about the people’s opinions and we can broadcast that,” said Besbes. “It was difficult to talk about that [before] – to give an opportunity for people to talk about what they thought, what they want to have in the political life and economic life of society.”
Radio Jawhara, he said, now had a daily political programme “where we can discuss all the new decisions of the government and the situation here”.
In the new liberal atmosphere, the quality of journalism matters as much as the sheer quantity of media.
Under Ben Ali, the media were subject to numerous government controls, ranging from direct state control for key TV stations and newspapers to censorship and control over advertising streams for others.
Besbes said things had changed since the revolution, adding, “Now we can talk about every subject. It was forbidden before.”
But according to Khelil Ben Osman, editor of the Tunisian blog fhimt.com, adapting has not been easy. Since Ben Ali’s departure, he said, “the media… are lost. They don’t know exactly how to treat information.”
Nicolas Pouillard, Tunisia analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says Tunisia lacks a tradition of criticising government and political parties.
“The actual journalists of all these media – press, television – have no political ideas or political culture, so they follow the main thread of the political discourse in general”, he said. “There is no tradition of criticism in the press. The information about political parties is very vague.”
As a result, he said, Tunisians would find it hard to get accurate information about political parties and the upcoming election.
Pouillard noted that some of the larger political parties had their own newspapers and also maintained unofficial links with TV stations, which often disseminated their political messages uncritically and without disclosing an interest.
The Tunisian revolution was in part driven by the Internet, with the rise of social networking sites as ways of mobilising people. In the post-revolutionary environment, the likes of Twitter, Facebook and blogs are still a major source of news.
“Mostly I see people trusting the social networks more than the media,” said Chagra. “Now everyone is trying to be his own journalist.”
Zied Mhirsi, co-founder of Tunisia-Live.com, a leading English-language news site, acknowledges that amateur journalism may not always be accurate.
“One issue with the Tunisian [online] media is that nobody went to journalism school,” he said. “They just have a passion for writing and for their country.”
But online media activists were keen to catch up through training, Mhirsi said. He is currently part-timing as a fixer for foreign journalists to improve his own journalistic skills training.
Ben Osman noted that social media activists were becoming more cautious about what they put out on the net. “They think two times before re-tweeting or publishing information,” he said. “This is very interesting. This is like having the conscience of being a journalist or having the rule of journalism.”
Mehdi said the users of social media sites, too were becoming more discerning.
“People will ask, where did you get this information from? And if you don’t have a confirmed source you get ‘banned’,” Mehdi said. “They will then share information like, ‘This guy or this person or this source is untrusted. Don’t refer to it any more.’
“People have learned how to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s false, what’s correct and what’s corrupt.”
Even when news sources are doing their best to be accurate and impartial, it is sometimes hard to make sense of the messages coming from a large number of political parties.
Since Ben Ali fled and his ruling Rally for Constitutional Democracy was disbanded, at least 150 new parties have been set up, of which anywhere between 80 and 120 are still functioning.
“There are 110 parties right now. That’s really a lot – too much,” Ben Osman said.
Marine Casalis, a French journalist reporting from Tunisia, said the sheer number was daunting.
“Generally speaking, Tunisians are confused about all these parties, because a., before the revolution they had only Ben Ali and they didn’t have a choice, so imagine going from one guy to over 100. And then b., just being in front of 100 parties. I mean, even in a country like France or the UK or whatever, if you have over 100 parties, how can you choose between one or two?” she asked.
Nevertheless, a handful of parties have emerged as the front-runners, all of them with a long track-record in opposition. Many polls put the Islamic Ennahda party in the lead, followed by the Progressive Democratic Party, and then – variously – the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, also known as Ettakatol, the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party, and the Ettajdid Movement.
Smaller parties have been busily forming coalitions to increase their influence, a trend which Casalis believes will continue.
“I think what is going to happen and what is already happening is that these parties are going to form coalitions, so the people can recognise them better,” she said. “With over 100 parties, they can’t be that different.”
But even the front-runners seem unable to articulate their messages clearly enough to win over wavering voters. The exception is Ennahda, whose general Islamist line is well known.
“We are not 100 per cent sure of who we are voting for, except for people who are voting for Ennahda, the Islamist party, who are getting a fairly big percentage of support,” Chagra said. “For me, most of [the parties] offered probably don’t represent me, but I want something that will be better for Tunisia.”
She remains undecided, “Just last week I was sure about who I was voting for, and now I’m kind of reconsidering.”
Pouillard, for one, is optimistic that Tunisians will get through this turbulent period.
“There is a sort of anarchy, but it is totally normal,” he said. “We cannot say that it is a negative process. There are some positive steps – the creation of new media, the end of interdictions [bans], and representation on the internet.”
Barrett Holmes Pitner is an IWPR reporter in London.
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