From left to right: Ennahda president Ghannoushi, former Minister-President Jebali and Tunisian president Marzouki.
The media in Tunisia has been undergoing drastic changes since the country’s revolution in 2011. After having been strictly controlled by Ben Ali´s regime, nowadays many new media outlets have found their way to millions of Tunisian households. The newfound media freedom has also turned Tunisian television into the main stage where fierce ideological battles are “fought”. Tunisian television is what I will focus on in this post, because it is (still) the most-used media in this country.
Taking a look at contemporary Tunisian media landscape, and more specifically television channels, it can is an evidence to its own pluralism. On privately-owned TV stations both government and opposition figures alike are ridiculed, something that was completely unthinkable before the revolution. Moreover, after the revolution television outlets have quickly been discovered to be an influential instrument in getting your political message into the household of millions of Tunisians. The few private owned tv channels that Tunisians were familiar with before the revolution were considered by some to be politically “leftist” and “elitist”. Unsatisfied with them their opponents have started their own tv channels. In practice this led to increasing “politicization” of the Tunisian media landscape. Tunisia has since its independence been a country that has been dominated by two secular-minded presidents and elite. After the revolution Ennahda won the elections found itself uncomfortable with what it considered to be “former regime remnants turning the media into a weapon against government policies”, and started to try and influence the existing media landscape. Just like many more politically affiliated and influential Tunisians did.
This has led among many other things to Ennahdha-affiliated businessmen having started their own private channels in trying to counter “leftist TV channels”. It is not hard to imagine that with increasing polarization television is used as an important propaganda tool.
So what are some well-known private TV channels? Who owns them? And what is their political affiliation? I will mention some of the most well-known (Arabic) Tunisian television channels and answer those questions. Where needed I will try to offer a better insight in what they actually broadcast and their importance related to recent or past political events in the country.
1) Nessma: owned by the influential businessman Nabil Karoui (see picture above). Nessma TV was one of the few private channels that were allowed to broadcast under Ben Ali’s rule. A strategy was deployed to allow some “privatization”, but making sure that only (loyal) associates were allowed to start a television channel. Nabil Karoui, owner and CEO, appeared more than once on his own TV channel calling the ousted president “our father” and the one “who brings justice”, among many other appraisals. Back then it only broadcasted programs and news related to sports, culture, music and fashion to a lesser extent. After the revolution he presented himself as a “victim of Ben Ali’s oppressive rule” and his tv-channel championed the revolution and its ideals. It shifted to political broadcasts, discussion programs and daily news. It caused controversy when it aired the Iranian film Persepolis, considered blasphemous by many Tunisians. It would later be convicted to paying a fine for “disrupting public order and violating morals” by airing the film. Since then his channel has sarcastically been called “Neqma” (meaning curse in Arabic) by more conservative Tunisians, a word-play on its actual name “Nessma”.
2) Al-Hiwar (dialogue): owned by opposition activist and experienced journalist Tahar bin Hussain. Al-Hiwar is politically affiliated to the opposition and more specifically the Bourguibist and anti-Ennahda party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes). The channel broadcasts news and offers discussion programs related to news and societal issues. After the second assassination of MP and opposition politician Mohammed al-Brahmi, Tahar bin Hussein encouraged Tunisians in his daily program to demonstrate against the Nahda-led government and demanded it to be replaced. Recently, he has been accused of calling “for the overthrow of the government” and has been called to appear before the investigative Court of First Instance. Especially after the last assassination and current crisis it is fair to say that his channel is staunchly anti-government, anti-Ennahda and was daily covering the anti-government demonstrations. By Ennahda supporters it has – after recent events in Egypt – been accused of “calling for a coup”.
3) Ettounissiya Channel: owned by Sami el-Fehri, an associate of the former Ben Ali-Trabelsi ruling family. Already before the revolution he co-owned Cactus Productions Company with Belhassen Trabelsi, brother-in-law of former president Ben Ali. El-Fehri has since September 2012 been jailed accused of corruption charges and “misappropriating national television recourses” for his own (co-owned) Cactus Productions Company. After the revolution and coming into existence of Ettounissiya Channel it used to be Tunisia’s top television channel, until two months ago when it went off-air because of a disagreement with their production company and losing their frequency. It aired successful programs such as Labes (political program where the host invites in front of audience guests to discuss political actuality and culture), Andi mnqolek (the host mediates in front of an audience to solve family/marital problems and get people back together), and al-Masaa (a panel where guests with political backgrounds and artists are invited to discuss actuality). Although it is associated with the former regime because of the well-known journalists that are working for the channel, it has been trying to overcome that accusation by inviting politicians, analysts and guests from all ideological backgrounds.
4) Hannibal TV: founded in 2005 by businessman Larbi Nasra. Back then it was the only private owned channel in Tunisia and broadcasted sports, culture, music and some religious programs to a lesser extent. After the revolution it was accused of “trying to spread disinformation in order to bring the country into chaos and hasten the return of Ben Ali”, although it was cleared of that accusation after some investigations. Nowadays it covers also politics in many of its programs.
5) Al Moutawasset: launched after the revolution and owned by Ennahda affiliates. It started with broadcasting political programs and news. Although their main focus is still on covering political actuality and news it nowadays also airs films, soaps, religious programs and documentaries. It has good relations with Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera and some of Al Moutawasset’s employees have visited it’s headquarter in Doha (Qatar) for a training course.
6) Zitouna TV: launched after the revolution and co-owned by Ennahda politician and former presidential advisor Lotfi Zitoun. It broadcasts mostly religious political discussion programs, and to a lesser extent culture and history. It is close to Ennahda and therefore pro-goverment. During the events in Egypt it dedicated most of it broadcasts coverling live Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations protesting against the coup of the Egyptian Army.
7) TNN: launched after the revolution and Ennahda affiliated it broadcasts political discussions, news, sports and some series. It has also interesting programs such as al-Qahwa (the coffee) where political or ideological rivals meet each other and while drinking a coffee they discuss politics.
8) Al-Janoubia: launched after the revolution it is hard to guess its affiliation. It is compared to other previously mentioned television channels rather a low-budget TV channel that is less concerned with politics and more with trying to give its viewers an inside into the lives of ordinary Tunisians. Its reporters go often to rural Tunisia, or poor or working class neighborhoods, to show the lives of Tunisians who are daily struggling to make a living. Though much less than other TV channels it does have some programs related to Tunisian politics as well as culture.
9) Tounesna: launched after the revolution it broadcasts mainly programs about culture, society and fashion. In some of its programs covering societal issues it has chosen to touch upon culturally sensitive issues (such as children out of wedlock, prostitution, AIDS etc.) through interviewing Tunisians followed by a panel discussion.
Besides those previousy mentioned nine (private) TV channels there are many more of course. Before the revolution however there were only 2 private channels, Nessma and Hannibal TV. Apart from that there were – and still are – also two state TV channels. Leaving politics and ideological battles aside the newfound media freedom has obviously benefited one party the most: Tunisian journalists. Whereas before the revolution a journalist still studying at university would know that he or she would have approximately 95% chance of not finding a job, nowadays many journalists have much more chance of trying to find work at one of the many media outlets. Apart from that pluralism has entered the Tunisian media landscape. Tunisians with different political preferences can all find the TV channel they trust to get their news from.