The ongoing debate over the liberalization of the broadcast media sector reflects the chronic ideological rift that still hammers Tunisia's progress toward full democracy.
A row broke out in September when the Tunisian parliament started debating a bill introduced by the Karama (Dignity) coalition to deregulate the broadcast media sector by removing a requirement for television and radio stations to have official licenses.
The Karama coalition says the bill's objectives include altering the process of appointment, renewing the composition of the broadcast media regulatory body, the High Independent Authority of the Audiovisual Commission (HAICA), and removing its power to issue licenses for the creation of TV channels.
"The reform we are suggesting will enable investors to avoid the HAICA's bureaucracy and the ideological and political leniencies of its members," said Abdellatif Aloui, a Karama lawmaker.
"The handful of media companies which monopolize the Tunisian market are scared by the reform we propose because they are unwilling to lose their total control over the Tunisian market and audiences," he said.
"For us, the HAICA is already dead while parliament still fails to elect a new board, as the Constitution stipulates," said Nabil Karoui, a media investor and chairperson of the Heart of Tunisia political party and the second-largest parliamentary group.
Supporters of the bill argue that liberalizing the broadcast media sector will allow many people to start their own TV and radio networks. "This will create job opportunities for thousands of media and journalism graduates, now unemployed for years or overexploited by the few existing media companies," said Seifeddine Makhlouf, the Karama spokesperson.
It will also end the monopoly of the current media, which monopolizes the biggest share of advertising revenues and TV audiences.
A threat to freedoms?
Media companies and human rights organizations have strongly objected to the bill and even demonstrated outside the parliament, calling not to pass the Karama coalition's proposed amendments to the Law on Freedom of Broadcast Media (Decree-law 116/2011).
They argued that the bill is "a serious threat to freedom of expression and a setback to the achievements that Tunisia has made in this field since the adoption of the current law."
For them, the proposed amendments "are inconsistent with the spirit of the Tunisian constitution and the commitments of the Tunisian state to protect freedom of expression and information."
According to opposition lawmaker Hatem Mliki, "there's a conflict of interest in the Karama coalition's scheme to reform the Decree 116." He continued by saying, "the Karama MPs have recently sued the HAICA in a Tunisian court and this constitutionally prevents them from introducing bills involving this body."
All about advertising
Tunisia's political spectrum, media professionals and freedom of expression advocates have rarely been so split as they now are over the reform of the legislation regulating the broadcast sector in the country, scheduled to be debated and voted on by the parliament soon.
It is good to remember that the biggest and most influential media platforms in Tunisia are owned or controlled by corrupt businesses and investors who all had ties to the country's old administration that was ousted in 2011.
Spending on TV and radio advertisements in Tunisia reached about $72 million in 2019, according to market research.
Many Tunisian experts and media professionals think the current dispute over liberalizing the broadcast sector has very little to do with democracy and press freedom.
Press freedom advocate Hamza Soudani said that "a handful of TV and radio stations monopolize nearly the totality of the advertising revenues." According to him, "the remaining other six TV channels have practically no share of the advertising revenues; even those that do not lack popularity."
Besides public TV and radio network El Watania 1, some private TV channels such as al-Hiwar, Attassia, Hannibal and Nessma as well as the Mosaique FM and Shems FM private radio stations "are owned by very powerful people and businesses and they will never concede that the market opens to free competition," Soudani said.
In Tunisia, many small media companies, including the so-called "regional" radio stations, besides web-radios, are complaining about "the monopoly of advertising by the big old broadcast companies," including Boutaieb Marzouki, the owner and director of Oasis FM, which airs from Gabes in southeastern Tunisia. In fact, many of the smallest networks have gone bankrupt since 2011.
Each year, hundreds of journalism students graduate from the country's only state journalism university, Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l'Information (IPSI) and some private universities. Very few of them, however, find jobs in the sector's "establishment."
On the other hand, those who claim to fear for democracy are not very pro-democracy, if at all.
"Most of them worked for former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, supported him and profited from him. They profited professionally, politically and financially," said Lotfi Hidouri, editor of the Achahed news website.
Who owns Tunisian media?
Despite the new-found freedoms in Tunisia since 2011, the country's media sector has remained under the exclusive control of people and companies closely tied with ousted Ben Ali's regime.
Media ownership remains a taboo subject in Tunisia. And nobody expects that TV and radio shows aired by the main networks will confront this issue.
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report is the only comprehensive information available on the situation in Tunisia, although it does not deal with the ethical background of media owners and funders.
The state-owned El Watania 1, the two channels of the national TV network and eight nationwide or regional radio stations have not been able to surmount decades-old corruption, bureaucracy and amateurism.
The example always cited by Tunisians whenever the issue is discussed is that of the about 500 employees at El Watania 1, only a few dozen go to work. This has been going on forever in this public-sector network totally funded by the tax-payers' money.
The most influential TV pundits, often called political analysts, political experts, and strategic experts, etc. in Tunisia, are very corrupt, ruthless arrivistes, who served the pre-2011 regime and are now used to ensure the survival of their businesses and political employers.
Many have been convicted and sentenced to various lengths of jail time for crimes they committed during the Ben Ali reign, but none of them has ever spent a single day in prison.
Sami Fehri, the owner of Al-Hiwar and a powerful political and media investor, is serving a two-year jail term for a single corruption case. He will be tried for other more serious crimes committed before and after 2011.
Nabil Karoui, the boss of Nessma TV, has been charged with at least counts of 16 corruption, fraud and money laundering. Nevertheless, this presidential candidate who competed with Kais Saied in the final round of the 2019 election and whose Heart of Tunisia party is the second biggest formation in parliament, walks free and uses his TV channel in total freedom.
Although the Tunisian law bans leaders of political parties from owning and running media companies, many influential TV networks are owned, totally or in part, by high officials of major political parties.
In Hidouri's view, "this weird media landscape, totally controlled by the counterrevolution forces and personalities, is largely due to the failure of the pro-Revolution people, organizations and parties to have their own media."
* Freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, in Tunis, Tunisia