The time is ripe for comprehensive reform in Tunisia

This post-election phase presents an important window of opportunity for reforming the media landscape in Tunisia

By Kamel Labidi

Few outside Tunisia would have predicted that a low profile constitutional law professor would win the Tunisian Presidential elections with a landslide victory this October. Kais Saied’s victory over his opponent the controversial media magnate, Nabil Karoui, proves the Tunisian voters’ determination for sweeping changes in the country’s governance. Disenchanted with politicians of different leanings, and their collective failures since the end of autocratic rule in 2011, Tunisians seek a new leadership. They want to see a comprehensive governmental approach that tackles social and economic inequities grappling the country, while allowing full freedom of expression and independent media voices.

Saied’s landslide victory speaks volumes. He won with nearly 73 % of the vote in the second round of the snap presidential election following the death of Beji Caid Essebsi, the first democratically elected president since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956. Young voters find his views more compatible with the Tunisian democratic process than his late rival. Despite his lack of direct political experience, Saied earned a positive reputation over the past years, particularly among unemployed young people, for being an independent academic and an astute observer of political and social issues in Tunisia. His conscious distancing from self-serving politicians, combined with his determination to tackle the rising corruption and social and economic problems widened his circle of supporters.

In tandem, social media played an important role in Saied’s victory. A strong network of young activists amplified his voice in the electoral campaign through Twitter and Facebook, along with ubiquitous canvassing on the streets, calling for urgent social, economic and political reform to help unemployed and impoverished Tunisians. His victory has dealt a severe blow to political parties seeking to further their own interests rather than strengthening the rule of law.

Karoui’s victory would have been a reversion to the old regime’s nepotism, especially the lack of regard for freedom of speech and independent media. Both Karoui and Rached Ghannouchi, the president of the Islamist Annahdha Party and new speaker of parliament, vehemently opposed the implementation of the recommendations issued by the National Commission for Media and Communication Reform in 2012. They also delayed the establishment of the most independent broadcasting regulator in the Arab region, the High Independent Authority of the Audiovisual Commission’s (HAICA), according to local and international human rights groups.

Window of opportunity

This post-election phase presents an important window of opportunity for reforming the media landscape in Tunisia.

Ghannouchi’s Annahdha Party and Karoui’s Qalb Tounes Party, which respectively control 54 and 38 seats of the 217 seats at the Assembly of the People’s Representatives are seen by local human rights groups as one of the major threats to progress towards rule of law and the protection of human rights. In particular, the right to freedom of expression and independent journalism and broadcasting media regulation would regress under their leadership. Both political parties continue to back broadcasting media outlets that violate the broadcasting regulations. They also support a 2017 draft law which would introduce a weak broadcasting regulator that is less independent than the current HAICA.

It is incumbent on the new government to firstly tackle the reigning unemployment and corruption and save public education and health services from complete collapse. In tandem, the democratization process that started in Tunisia in 2011 must be ensured through further media reform which will not progress without a comprehensive strategy that is formulated by a diverse coalition of local rights groups, with the backing of international rights groups.

To begin with, we must safeguard the significant steps made since 2011 to protect freedom of expression and the press, while opposing parliamentary moves to restrict these rights and the functioning of independent journalism. We must also protect the work and role of independent broadcasting regulations. First, all broadcasting media outlets, particularly the Annahdha Party-backed Ezzeitouna TV and the Qalb Tounes-backed Nessma TV, must start adhering to the broadcasting media law (Decree Law 116) of 2011. Second, the parliament must not create a new broadcasting law that would result in a less independent regulator than the existing HAICA. Third, the parliament should refrain from passing any new legislation restricting freedom of expression and freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution. Fourth, they should initiate new legal reform to protect the independence of public media and end the governmental pressures on public media outlets.

Reform amid limited victory

The outcome of the elections do present some limitations to the expansion of human rights, especially in relation to freedom of the press, association and independent media.

Many observers inside the country feel that the biggest threat to genuine democratization in Tunisia is the fragmentation in the Representatives of People’s Assembly elected in October, whose members are largely conservative in their outlook. In fact, the Tunisian Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties and the Observatory for the Defense of the Right to Difference in Tunisia reported that none of the candidates placed protection of basic human rights as their top priority. In a country that experienced more than six decades of autocratic rule, it should be a minimum expectation that presidential and parliamentary candidates pledge to safeguard basic human rights, while articulating their specific plans to advance them.

The increasing attacks against journalists ring yet another warning bell. In the wake of this year’s elections, fifteen rights groups warned that the rising incitement and attacks against journalists only “ serve the interests of pressure groups and political parties,” which have been obstructing “all genuine efforts to reform different institutions and to protect them from rampant corruption, including the media” since the 2011 uprising. Such attacks against the press by extremist supporters of political groups, seek to restrict freedom of expression and of the press, and control public media.

These attacks appear to stem “from the lack of a “civic revolution that guarantees the right to freedom, while valuing public interest, and abiding by the rule of law, and respecting ecological balance and the right to difference,” as Mohamed Kerrou, a Tunisian political science professor explained in his recent book, “The Other Revolution.” They must be halted and their perpetrators held accountable through free and fair trials in the courts of law.

Overcoming limitations to expand freedoms

Saied’s own conservative social views, in relation to women’s rights, particularly with inheritance, and his reluctance to abide by international human rights standards have spurred deep concerns among the Tunisian public. The election of 21 radical Islamist members to parliament, under the banner of the “Coalition of Dignity”, who voiced their support for Saied, and their backing for an Annahdha-led government, has worried human rights defenders. It is also fueling polarization, between political parties and their respective supporters that is reminiscent of 2013, when two opposition figures, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, were assassinated. Both were top critics of the then Annahda-led government. To date, no light has been shed on these two political assassinations.

But in reality, Saied’s constitutional prerogatives are limited under Tunisia’s current parliamentary system, and hopefully do not pose a major threat to the country’s transition to democracy. Similar to his predecessor, who was among Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s top aides for nearly three decades, Saied does appear committed to the rule of law in Tunisia.

Since our launch in 2013, Yakadha (Vigilance) has initiated joint actions, including legal research that raises awareness among Tunisians from different walks of life, about the urgent need for media reform and abiding by international standards for freedom of expression. Such collective civil society-led demands resulted in the government implementing more stringent media laws and the formation of HAICA, the first of its kind in the Arab world. It also led the Tunisian parliament to delay plenary discussions of restrictive draft laws.

In light of this relatively open attitude of the incoming administration, one of the top priorities of Yakadha is that Saied and his government make concrete pledges to implement the role of the new broadcasting regulator enshrined in the 2014 constitution and legally protect its independence. We seek a more independent public media and legal protections for independent journalism. We demand that private broadcasters breaching the ethics and standards of journalism are held accountable.

Kamel Labidi, a Tunisian journalist and human rights' defender, leads the association Yakadha (Vigilance), which advocates since 2013 stronger legal guarantees for freedom of expression and media freedom in Tunisia. A partner of IMS, Yakadha has also been instrumental in the IMS-led MENA Media Law Reform initiative. Further reading on freedom of expression in the Maghreb: