The Karama Alliance, a Tunisian parliamentary coalition, has sparked widespread controversy in the country by proposing reforms to the laws governing the regulation of audio-visual media outlets — the print media is being eclipsed by television and the internet and is in rapid decline. Among the reforms is a proposal to remove their requirement to secure a license from the regulatory body Haute Autorité Indépendante de la Communication Audiovisuelle (HAICA), which has caused widespread uproar in the media industry. Some have declared it a power grab of the media space by the political parties and a bid to crush dissent and freedom of speech.

Before assessing the dynamics and the impact of the proposed legislation, it is important to stress that Tunisian media currently wields significant influence over public opinion. During the presidential debates in 2019, presidential candidate and media tycoon Nabil al-Karoui stated that more than 80 percent of Tunisians only watch local stations. The viewership of domestic political debates on channels such as Al-Hiwar al-Tounis have in the past surpassed three million, in a country where the population is estimated at 12 million.

Concerns over the sweeping influence of the media outlets has been a matter of significant debate since the 2011 revolution.

Concerns over the sweeping influence of the media outlets, as well as the general sense that most share similar political ideologies, has been a matter of significant debate since the 2011 revolution. However, the reality is that the political debate surrounding the proposed reforms has nothing to do with freedom of speech and everything to do with the current power dynamics and wider struggle between the various factions for supremacy.

In April 2019, the regulatory body HAICA issued an order for the closing of Nabil Karoui’s television channel, Nessma. The order was backed by then-Prime Minister Youcef Chahed who intended to run for the presidency and believed Karoui, who had already declared his intent to run in the elections, to be a serious challenger and contender. Subsequently, security forces were deployed and Nessma’s offices were stormed.

Nevertheless, Nessma later resumed broadcasting and played a pivotal role in propelling Karoui to the second round of the elections (where he was subsequently defeated by Kais Saied), and in securing sweeping gains for his newly formed political party, Qalb Tounes, which took second place behind the Ennahda party in the parliamentary elections.

However, the HAICA order was not rescinded and is legally still valid. In other words, Nessma is broadcasting without a valid license from the regulatory body. Yet, HAICA is powerless to enforce its ruling due to the lack of political will.

The absence of a single party majority in Parliament means that the support of Karoui’s political bloc (Qalb Tounes) is integral to forming any functioning government.

The absence of a single party majority in Parliament means that the support of Karoui’s political bloc (Qalb Tounes, which is the second largest) is integral to forming any functioning government. Unlike in 2019, when then-Prime Minister Youcef Chahed had a vested interest in removing Karoui, the current divided and mosaic make-up of Parliament means that Karoui’s support is being sought after by other political blocs.

It is in this context that Karoui is one of the key supporters of the proposed reforms which would remove the requirement for media outlets to secure a license from HAICA, thereby invalidating the outstanding order of closure for his channel and preserving his most powerful political weapon.

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Karama Alliance and Ennahda

It is not just Nabil Karoui, however, who is pressing for reforms. The Karama Alliance – an important political bloc in its own right and the loudest advocate of the media reforms – has regularly clashed with the established media and has found its ability to address the people via the increasingly hostile conventional outlets restricted. The only platform sympathetic to Karama, the Al-Zaytouna channel, has already been issued a notice to stop broadcasting by HAICA, and is considered an illegal channel by the regulatory body.

The Karama Alliance has regularly clashed with the established media.

Yet, despite repeated calls from HAICA for action to be taken against the channel, Al-Zaytouna has continued to broadcast. According to the Head of the regulatory body, Al-Nouri Al-Lajmi, the primary reason for this is because the channel is supported by “prominent political parties.”

In Al-Zaytouna’s case, the implied reference is that the Ennahda party protects the channel from any adverse action that might lead to its forced closure. Ennahda itself, while avoiding the spotlight on this particular issue, has affirmed its support for the proposals as it has a vested interest in preserving Al-Zaytouna as a conduit through which to promote its activities unchallenged and communicate directly with the public without undergoing the scrutiny it would otherwise be subjected to on other more established stations.

 The International Angle

The proposed reforms, however, are not merely attempts to rescue the aforementioned media outlets from the rulings of the regulatory body. The implications are much wider. Abolishing the requirement for a license from HAICA opens the door for international actors to establish or support their own media endeavors in the country. In other words, the reforms would render the media playing field an open free-for-all, whereby the international actors that have sought to influence Tunisian politics will be able to fund enterprises to push their own political agendas and sway public opinion. This includes Qatar, which sympathizes with Ennahda; and the UAE, which sympathizes with anti-Ennahda elements including Abir Moussi.

It is this dimension that has caused much consternation among critics who argue that while the current landscape is not conducive to fair debate, the proposed reforms do not offer a better alternative, are ill-considered, and too politically charged.

The Needed Reforms

Tunisia’s audio-visual media landscape has many problems. Among them the loose accusations of corruption made against individuals without offering the right of reply to those accused. Narratives are often peddled without sufficient scrutiny or critical analysis, which results in the creation of “truths” and “facts” powerful enough to affect voter decision-making in local and national elections.

Narratives are often peddled without sufficient scrutiny or critical analysis, which results in the creation of “truths” and “facts.”

In the absence of a trusted judiciary, there is little recourse for individuals against what is an almighty media industry with few restrictions. HAICA lacks the enforcement mechanisms to apply its rulings and has been accused of allowing itself to be used as a political tool against government opponents.

Few would disagree that the media landscape in Tunisia is in need of reform to ensure wider representation and greater accountability in a deeply polarized society — a reality the industry has played a significant role in bringing about. However, what is being proposed by the loose political alliance of Karoui, Karama, and Ennahda, is not a free media, but a bid to overrun their rivals and assume that unchecked power for themselves.