Democracy Lab

A Tale of Two Decrees

Tunisia's media sector still has a long way to go before it can serve as a bulwark of democracy. The third in our series of Lab Reports on Tunisia.

Tunisia's journalists have gone through a lot in the past few years. Until the fall of 2010 they still lived in "one of the worst media environments in the Arab world," according to Freedom House. Under the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, journalists were arrested, beaten, or fired from their jobs for the slightest of transgressions. The state kept reporters under close surveillance and did its best to prevent them from leaving the country (although dozens managed to escape into exile nonetheless). A central censorship board tightly controlled all political news. Criticism of the president was not tolerated.

Democracy Lab's In-Depth Reports on Tunisia

  • LAB REPORT 1: Embracing Enemies in Tunisia, by Oussama Romdhani
  • LAB REPORT 2: Put Tunisians Back to Work, by Emmanuel Martin and Dalibor Rohac
  • LAB REPORT 3: A Tale of Two Decrees, by Fadil Aliriza

The start of the Tunisian uprising brought dramatic change. The collapse of Ben Ali's regime in early 2011 threw Tunisia's traditional police state off balance, and a cacophony of competing interests opened up in the media sector. Jailed journalists, activists, and bloggers were released. New press codes promised free access to information. Tunisian journalists of all stripes, particularly those from state institutions, received training from international bodies to support the development of an independent fourth estate.

Yet despite all that has happened, Tunisia's media sector, like the country's state institutions, remains largely unreformed. "After the revolution I felt comfortable covering any subject," says Asma Sahboun, a reporter at Chorouk, Tunisia's highest-circulation daily newspaper. "But now we're scared that it will go back to what it was like before. I'm scared, because the structure of the media fundamentally hasn't changed."

The problems of the media are best understood against the background of the reforms undertaken by Tunisia's second post-revolutionary government. One of the first results of the uprising was the disbanding of the High Communication Council, the government body that had been tasked with censoring the press under Ben Ali, in March 2011. Then-Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi replaced it with the National Committee for Information and Communication Reform, which quickly drew up two decrees that established the framework for all future media sector reform.

The first decree, number 115, clearly established the principle of press freedom. Yet three years later, it continues to co-exist uneasily with Tunisia's unreformed penal code, which even today allows journalists to be arrested, fined, and jailed on charges such as "defamation," "offenses against state agents," and "harming public order." There have been many calls for reform of the penal code, even from government ministers. Human rights activists have been particularly vocal about the need to overhaul laws used to silence journalists. But this sensitive task remains captive to the broader movement to reform the justice system, which has stalled.

With conflicting laws on the books, it has been easy for the state to deal with its critics as it always has: with repression. The government's tendency to ignore the rights enshrined in decree 115 has only intensified since the formation early this year of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa's nonpartisan government. Since then, police forces have cracked down on dissenting journalists, arresting and beating those who cover events that show the security forces in an unfavorable light. One journalist who was charged with defamation under the Ben Ali regime and whose case was dropped following the 2011 revolution is now being charged again for the same crime. To be sure, serious efforts to reform the sector are under way. But the advocates of press freedom face an uphill battle in a country whose citizens are experiencing democracy fatigue, and where state institutions still await substantive reform. (In the photo above, a Tunisian journalist looks through a TV frame during a sit-in to protest aggression against TV reporters in April 2012.)

The second decree, number 116, created a new independent body called the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA). Apart from regulating all broadcast news and entertainment, HAICA is charged with "guaranteeing the freedom of expression" and the "establishment of a pluralistic, honest media landscape," according to the new constitution. HAICA has interpreted that to include preventing special interests from exercising undue influence. It's a role that's phenomenally important in a country where over 99 percent of citizens own a television set. Tunisians trust the national TV station for news about Tunisia above any other media source, and, according to a BBC Media Action survey of the country's broadcasting environment, some 80 percent of the population catch national TV's nightly news bulletin at least once a week. HAICA's mission to regulate and reform TV and radio would be difficult enough, given the long-standing tradition of state control. Now the job is additionally complicated by private media barons who are vying to expand their influence over politics, the economy, and the media in the run-up to elections that are likely to be held this year.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of journalists and media bosses that have misunderstood the freedom of expression," says Hichem Snoussi, one of HAICA's nine members. He can be forgiven for choosing his words carefully: He's alluding to the wide range of misdeeds habitually committed by Tunisia's post-revolutionary media, including outright slander, propaganda in favor of particular political groups, and exploitative intrusion into the privacy of private citizens.

Since its creation, HAICA has worked hard to preserve its independence and its potentially far-reaching powers. Debate flared earlier this year, when members of the constituent assembly attempted to use the new constitution to relegate HAICA to an advisory role. Thanks to some energetic, last-minute lobbying, HAICA managed to block passage of these articles; in the end the drafters of the constitution approved relatively neutral language on the body's role. There is still a chance, however, that HAICA might be captured by other interests or is already being swayed by other interests. "The texts are still too blurry to guarantee the full independence of HAICA," says Eve Sabbagh, the country director of the non-profit media development organization BBC Media Action, "but we have to recognize this is a huge achievement."

More recently, HAICA's new cahier de charge, its draft legal framework, has threatened to upset the status quo. The weight of this document is unclear, since no one really knows just how independent HAICA is, or how authoritative its decisions are -- but the cahier pulls no punches. It offers specific rules on everything from licensing, intellectual property, and financial transparency, to content control on issues like discrimination, defamation, and hate speech.

After announcing this protocol, HAICA was attacked by nearly all sides. Its opponents -- the owners of big private TV stations -- dislike its anti-monopoly stipulations, its ban on the ownership of TV stations by political parties, and its requirement that TV stations publicly declare their funding and ownership, according to Snoussi.

Businessman Nabil Karoui, the owner and director of Nessma TV, says he has been blasting away at Snoussi and his colleagues for other reasons. He complains that the members of the commission don't understand the business that they're trying to regulate -- exemplified by the cahier's strict limits on advertising, which, he says, threaten profitability. He claims he has already lost 70 percent in advertising dollars over the last three years. "They think we are all Murdochs, but we are all so miserable," Karoui says. Karoui hasn't been afraid to push back. At one point he told fans of a popular Turkish soap opera that HAICA's restrictions might lead Nessma to pull the show.

Yet it's hard to dismiss the suspicion that Karoui's indignation is also due in part to his close relationship to one of Tunisia's leading political parties. According to Nadia Haddawi, a journalist at the citizen journalism blog Nawaat, Nessma TV is closely allied with former Prime Minister Essebsi, who now leads Nida Tounes, the most popular secular party and a bastion of old regime figures. (Karoui denies this, saying he is now friendly with the leaders of both major parties, Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi of the former governing Islamist party Ennahda. Karoui takes credit for bringing those leaders together last year to end months of deadlock: "I organized... six or seven meetings and you see the results: Tunisia is good. It's not as bad as Egypt or Libya because of that.")

At the same time, HAICA finds itself fending off attacks from allies of Ennahda as well. Lotfi Touati, the new chief producer of the Ennahda-friendly TV station Zitouna, says that HAICA is biased against his network. He cites a decision by HAICA to ban a radio show that condemned the Egyptian military's bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013. Even though HAICA has also issued rulings against the secular Ettounsiya TV station, Touati dismisses them as trivial.

Ettounsiya, Tunisia's most popular private TV station, is a particularly interesting case. Although the channel's ownership is opaque, it is widely believed that a Tunisian business tycoon named Slim Riahi effectively controls the station. Though HAICA's Snoussi declined to comment directly on reports of Riahi's influence, he pointedly warned against the combination of politics, money, and media, noting that "we have seen the results with Berlusconi, with Murdoch."

Riahi remains a mysterious figure. Formerly a London-based businessman who made his fortune in Libya, he is known to have close ties to the Trabelsis, the family of Ben Ali's wife Leila. In 2011, Riahi started his own political party just in time for the first post-revolutionary elections, though it ended up winning few votes. Although Ettounsiya appears to be owned by a Delaware-registered group, something that Snoussi confirms, the network's corresponding Tunisian production company, Cactus Production, is based in Tunisia, meaning that it falls under HAICA's jurisdiction. (Riahi did not respond to requests for comment made through his associates.)

According to Sabbagh of BBC Media Action, media reform can only go so far until the government moves forward on the issue of transitional justice. The Tunisian government has yet to decide whether or not to forgive the officials who work with the old regime, she says.

She may be right. Until they begin that discussion, the line between propagandists and real journalists will remain blurry. If there are absolutely no consequences for propagandists masquerading as journalists, then there will be no incentive for the establishment of professional journalism.

Journalists working in Tunisia today had differing relationships with the Ben Ali regime. Some, like Lotfi Ben Nasr, the ex-director of the state TV station Tunisie 7 who now works as a reporter for national TV, worked to advance the regime's goals. Then there are those like Nawaat's Sami Ben Gharbia, who strongly supported the revolution. "We try to influence the influencers," says Ben Gharbia. "Average citizens will read tabloids and bullshit stories." He and many like him were persecuted or pushed into exile when their reporting disobeyed government censors -- but, as one might expect, they were the exceptions. Of the journalists working in Tunisia today, most of them have careers more closely resembling Ben Nasr's. And even though the nine members of HAICA are tough defenders of press freedom today, most of them had to make their own compromises as journalists during the days of the old regime.

While Ben Gharbia offers his support to HAICA in its fight with private TV stations and state institutions, he takes a radical line on the question of forgiveness. "I don't think it's possible to reform a sector that was corrupted, that was part of the propaganda machine and an arm of the Ben Ali regime by will or by pressure," he says. But he still has hope. "We need a new generation of journalists and activists. They're emerging and they'll be stronger in the future."

Given that Tunisia does not currently have a democratically elected government, and given the fierce debate over HAICA, this is a pivotal moment for the media sector. The enemies of reform -- the state, the media barons, and certain political parties -- all have an interest in preventing the media from serving an informed citizenry. Karoui, for his part, is confident that he and his allies will block implementation of the cahier in the courts. He may be right. He's even gained friends of the cause among the country's powerful labor unions, who have warmed to the role of arbiter between the state and the new elites.

"HAICA is a joke, my friend," Karoui told me. " HAICA is temporary." He's confident that the parliament that emerges from the next round of national elections will end up choosing an entirely new HAICA board. "We saw the danger. All the parties saw the danger as well." He says that he and his allies are drafting a new media law that will protect their interests.

A lot can still happen between now and then. The advocates of reform -- activists, bloggers, NGOs, an independent HAICA, and international partners -- may not succeed in preventing private media outlets from wielding inordinate power. At the very least, however, they might be able to carve out a space for a nonpartisan public media and private institutions that can provide a check on the power of the state. One can only hope they succeed. The freedom of speech, perhaps the revolution's most precious gain and a prerequisite for many other democratic reforms, is far from guaranteed in today's Tunisia. Preserving and expanding it will take a lot of hard work.

Top image: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Graphic Designer: Chloe Chik

Background images: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Put Tunisians Back to Work

Post-revolutionary Tunisia has made great strides toward democracy. Now it needs to deliver on promises of economic growth. The second in our series of Lab Reports on Tunisia.

In January, Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly approved a new, democratic constitution for the country. Months earlier, the former government leaders from the Islamist party Ennahda, agreed to step down and transfer power, peacefully, to a new prime minister and caretaker government and to engage in a new National Dialogue. More recently, the government approved a new electoral law and is making preparations for general elections in November. While the situation on the ground is not idyllic, most would agree that Tunisia's post-Arab Spring governments have made a concerted and commendable effort to establish democracy. But, as in other countries in the region, Tunisia's 2011 uprising was just as much about jobs and economic growth as it was about political representation. Yet three years later, successive governments have made only modest progress on the economic front.

Democracy Lab's In-Depth Reports on Tunisia

  • LAB REPORT 1: Embracing Enemies in Tunisia, by Oussama Romdhani
  • LAB REPORT 2: Put Tunisians Back to Work, by Emmanuel Martin and Dalibor Rohac
  • LAB REPORT 3: A Tale of Two Decrees, by Fadil Aliriza

The challenges Tunisia's leaders face aren't quite as daunting as those that plague other countries in the region, such as Egypt or Algeria. State ownership of the economy, for example, is much smaller in Tunisia than elsewhere: Only 15 percent of total fixed capital investment spending comes from the government, compared to over 60 percent in Algeria, and 40 percent in Egypt and Yemen. Yet the legacy of Arab socialism, which has plagued the region since the late 1950s, is still very much alive. Since 1959, the government has financed nearly all of Tunisia's industrial sectors either through equity participation or bank lending. In the late 1980s, Tunisia turned over the bulk of its manufacturing and service sectors to private owners, and in the 1990s and 2000s, it partially privatized Tunisie Télécom (its telecom operator), large parts of the banking sector, as well as its large cement companies, such as Société Les Ciments de Jbel Oust and Société Les Ciments d'Enfidha. But privatization itself was not enough to generate new economic opportunities. Unless Tunisia embraces bold economic reforms, the recent political achievements may be reversed.

As in other North African countries, unemployment is a major problem in Tunisia, with the official unemployment rate at 17 percent. The situation is even worse among young university graduates, 30 percent of whom are unemployed. The Tunisian economy offers few opportunities for skilled young workers, and many bright Tunisians with college degrees compete for a small number of public sector jobs -- and very often end up disappointed. In February, unsuccessful job candidates in the Gafsa region, in the country's south, set the local police station on fire to protest the results of recruitment in a government company. Earlier in the year, in Menzel Bouzayene, in the central region of Sidi Bouzid, young unemployed graduates were symbolically auctioning away their university diplomas -- not necessarily to make money but rather to attract the attention of authorities to their plight.

Strikes continue to cripple Tunisia's fragile economy and contribute to the image problem deterring foreign investors. Tunisia saw 399 strikes in 2013 by customs officers, magistrates, airport workers, doctors, and many others. Many of these were violent strikes, intended to pressure state-owned companies to hire people. In early January, the whole city of Kasserine was shut down by a general strike protesting against poverty and underdevelopment in central Tunisia. The strike took a violent turn when protesters started throwing rocks at a local police posts and the police responded with tear gas. (The photo above shows protesters in front of Ennahda's offices during the Kasserine protests.) Local outposts of the Tunisian labor union the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) typically pursue a more ruthless strategy and are more inclined to organize local strikes than its central office in Tunis, which is amenable to political dialogue.

If the status quo makes Tunisians unhappy, attempts at reform are met with even greater resistance. Under pressure from international lenders to balance the budget and put its financial house in order, the 2014 budget introduced tax increases, especially on motor vehicles, raising the vehicle tax by 25 percent and imposing a new tax on larger vehicles. This led to angry demonstrations and road blockades, resulting in a suspension of the transportation tax increase. The former government was also planning cuts to price subsidies on basic foodstuff and energy. There is a strong case for reforming the byzantine and hugely inefficient system of price controls and subsidies, yet reform attempts are likely to generate popular discontent in the short term because of concerns over the cost of living.

For poor Tunisians, price inflation is a serious problem. Although the official inflation rate is 6 percent, poorer Tunisians are skeptical and feel that the prices of their own consumption baskets have been growing more rapidly. In fact, a new "kafteji index" was introduced to capture the changes in purchasing power of the dinar, named after the famous fried vegetable and egg dish, the ubiquitous street food found throughout Tunisia. The index captures changes in prices of kafteji ingredients such as potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums, squash, eggs, vegetable oil, and bread. Between January 2013 and January 2014, the index grew by 23.6 percent, suggesting a substantial growth in the cost of living, particularly for poorer households.

What's more, the falling value of the dinar is contributing to high import prices, adding to costs for business. According to Habib Sayah, the director of the Kheireddine Institute, a pro-market think tank in Tunis, the ongoing depreciation is a burden on entrepreneurs who tend to buy their capital abroad -- usually without access to financial instruments that could help them mitigate foreign exchange risks.

Tunisia needs broad economic reforms, beyond cuts to subsidies, price liberalization, and more prudent monetary policy. It also needs a better environment for its businesses, especially for small and very small companies. Close to 95 percent of the country's economic landscape consists of micro-enterprises, and these face formidable barriers to entry and growth. According to the World Bank's Doing Business report, starting a business has become more difficult compared to previous years. Obtaining a simple construction permit requires 94 days and costs close to 256 percent of average annual income in the country. Tunisia also ranks 109th in the world in terms of the ability of its entrepreneurs to access credit.

It is no coincidence Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation set off the Tunisian revolution, was a street vendor who was harassed by local authorities. Bouazizi, who could find no other job opportunities, was trying to make a living by selling fruits and vegetables on streets. The lack of economic freedom was a major cause of its revolts, but successive Tunisian governments have not seriously addressed that fundamental problem, focusing instead on political issues.

Under the presidency of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was characterized by a system of cronyism and clientelism, benefitting only his personal circle of friends and family. In 2008, Robert F. Godec, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, cabled that "President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of ‘the Family' is enough to indicate which family you mean." In the eyes of the general public, the president was often given a pass, but the stories of corruption of his wife, Leila Ben Ali -- and her extended family -- have become legendary and culminated in the rumor the she escaped to Saudi Arabia after the revolution, taking some $60 million in gold bullion with her.

The high-level corruption of the Ben Ali family and its cronies was simply an offshoot of the widespread corrupt practices of the public administration, driven by excessive red tape and discretion among government officials. On that front, the revolution has not changed things dramatically. While there have not been high-profile corruption scandals, some argue that petty corruption may have increased. On Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Tunisia now ranks 77th out of 177 countries, compared to 65th in 2009. Many Tunisians say that the people in charge may be different today, but the underlying logic of an elite living at the expense of the general public remains unchanged.

Many of these issues were raised when the National Constituent Assembly discussed Article 48 of the new Tunisian constitution, which deals with individual rights and freedoms. An amendment proposed by the former Ennahda member Fattoum Attia, and supported by members of the assembly from various political backgrounds, stated that "the State shall guarantee the freedom to work and the freedom of economic initiative." This would embed the protection of economic freedom in the constitution and prevent instances of arbitrary harassment -- which motivated Bouazizi's desperate act -- while also curbing rampant overregulation, which in turn fuels unchecked corruption by government officials.

As Habib Bribech, a member of the Constituent Assembly from the Ennahda party, noted, the proposed amendment "could have been the most revolutionary article of the constitution." Abdel Monem Krir, of the Nida Tounes party, added that "the government cannot do more.... Businessmen are the ones creating wealth." This amendment would have indeed given constitutional protection to the very freedom that Bouazizi was fighting for, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the country's economic development.

Alas, the amendment was rejected in a vote held in January, winning just 93 of the 109 needed "yea" votes. For its opponents, such as the member of the assembly Samia Abou of the Democratic Movement, this amendment would have "impose[d] an economic orientation of savage neoliberalism" on the country. Mourad Amdouni, another assembly member, warned that "if you pass this article, it would be the greatest betrayal made to the Tunisian people and the revolution." The rhetoric is indicative of the extent to which the political left in Tunisia is still drawing on the "class struggle" mentality and has not grasped the economic roots of the revolution.

Of course, this setback is not fatal. With the constitution in place, and facing pressure from foreign investors, the government can act to unleash the potential of the country's small and medium-sized enterprises. After all, the adoption of the new constitution on Jan. 26 has already enabled the country to access $506 million in loans from the IMF and over $347 million from the European Union. By themselves, these injections of cash do not mean much, but one hopes that they could be followed by larger inflows of private capital if the government pursues a course of bold economic reforms.

The new prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, faces enormous challenges. Young and with experience in the private sector, he recognized in his first speech as prime minister at the assembly that structural reforms were needed. He noted that the new public sector jobs and populist spending of the past three years had worsened the financial situation of the country while doing little to improve productivity or standards of living. It is high time, he said, for Tunisians to stop the "financial hemorrhage," take a "break from social conflicts," and, finally, go to work. Indeed, there would be no better way to honor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi than if this young prime minister, untainted by the country's authoritarian past, were successful in "letting Tunisians go to work" creating and running their own businesses.


Graphic Designer: Chloe Chik

Background images: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images