Tunisia has been a leading Arab country in
establishing some of the first newspapers in the 19th century. Together
with Egypt and Lebanon, Tunisia was among the first to develop an independent and
vibrant press in the 20th century. This historical background only
highlights the present day drastic declination of press freedom in the country.
The government has a monopoly on all television and
radio, and along with the ruling party, the Rassemblement
Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) controls the nationally distributed
newspapers. These include Es Sahafa, Al Hurriya, Le Renouveau as well as the main French-language daily La Presse. The current situation has
earned Tunisia the sobriquet of being a country with seven versions of Pravda. The restrictions on the freedom
of speech has earned the long-term and all-powerful president Zein El Abidine Ben
Ali repeated showing on the list of the ‘Ten Worst Enemies of the Press’
produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists, while in 1997 the Tunisian
Newspaper Association was expelled from the World Association of Newspapers
(WAN) over failure to support a more open press.
Ben Ali’s government has a long history of persecuting
outspoken journalists, who risk losing their jobs and accreditation when being
too critical in their reporting. Most recently, in March 2007, journalist
Mohamed Fourati received a 14-month prison sentence in absentia for two
articles he wrote back in 2002. One of these articles was published on the internet.
The sentence was motivated in that the article proved that he belonged ‘to an
opposition group.’ The other article was about fund-raising for the family of a
Even the privately owned Arabic-language dailies As
Sabah and Al Chourouk contribute to the personal cult of the
president and rarely challenge the government on serious policy issues. The
newspapers of the other political parties, which are allied to the government,
have run into the ground for lack of readership. There are virtually only two
papers that put up serious opposition to the government—the Renewal Movement’s
monthly Al-Tariq Al Jadid (The New
Way) and the Progressive Socialist Rally’s weekly Al Mawkif (The Stance). The government has made corruption and
human-rights issues off-limit for the media as well as discussion about the banned
Islamic movement An Nahda Al Islamiyya,
whose strength is hard to gauge because of a comprehensive government crackdown
on their activities throughout the 1990s. As a result of the state’s watertight
control of the press there are two styles of journalism in Tunisia: uncritical
reports of government actions and an overflow of tabloid-style news on crime,
entertainment and gossip.
On the legislative level the government has taken some
small steps to amend the restrictive Press Code, abolishing some of its
controversial clauses. In 2005, the government began the process of abolishing
the clause called “dépôt legal 10”,
which require newspapers to provide a receipt from the Ministry of Interior
before being permitted to go to print. Nevertheless and in spite of the
government’s repeated promises to initiate new amendments, journalists still
risk prison terms for press offenses as the authorities claim they must defend
public figures against bad and sensationalist reporting and to sanction those
who offend public morality. The state’s effort to control the flow of
information is not limited to national newspapers, as foreign publications
considered to portray the country in an unfavorable light are censored or
confiscated. More recently the government has been policing the internet and
blocking access to websites that criticize human rights abuses in the country,
including the websites of Amnesty International site and the Committee to
The press also suffers from limited circulation: the
best selling Al Shurouq sells around
45,000 copies while La Presse sells around
30,000. As if a small market is not a sufficient commercial handicap, the state’s
obsession for control has created restrictive licensing regulations and a system
whereby the government uses the advertisements from state bodies, which are the
major advertisers, as a form of subsidy that further affects the sector. The dependence
of most newspapers on advertising allocated by the government is an effective control
mechanism over the material published.
Did you know?
One of the oldest Arab newspapers, the official Al Ra’id Al Tunisi (The Tunisian
Forerunner), was established in 1860 by the Tunisian ruler Sadeq Pasha and was
published until the 1950s.
The leading pro-government newspaper, Al Chourouk provides an uncritical coverage of the activities of President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali and faithfully reflects the official line of the ruling party through its editorials. The newspaper has a special section on north Africa called Al Maghreb, as the western part of the Arab world, which besides Tunisia, includes Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, is called in Arabic.
Language: Arabic Established: N/A Published weekly
A leading opposition weekly of the Progressive Democratic Party and the most frequently harassed of the authorized publications, Al Mawkif is denied public subsidy and advertising. On its pages, Al Mawkif closely follows cases of breaches of human rights, such as political prisoners and the so-called “internet prisoners”, which are a group of young people who in 2004 were sentenced for using the internet to obtain information on explosives.
Language: Arabic Established: N/A Published monthly
The official newspaper of the Tunisian ex-communist party, revamped as a social democratic Harakat Ettajdid, (The Renewal Movement), Al Tariq Al Jadid covers the activities of the opposition and publishes serious editorials and analysis of the political situation in Tunisia, with focus on the nascent military Islamist opposition, the problems faced by the unemployed and the young and the increasing social gap between the rich and the poor.
A pro-government newspaper, As Sabah is a tabloid, with a focus mainly on non-political news and sport. As Sabah has a weekly publication called Al Usbu’i, which provides more serious political news coverage.
Language: French Established: 1936 Published daily
The French-language sister paper of the Arabic daily Es Sahafa, the once so prestigious La Presse is now filled with articles describing the great achievements of President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali. The newspaper, however, still shows some of its old professional style when covering the cultural scene.
The French-language sister paper of the pro-government Arab daily Al Chourouk, which besides the prominent place allocated to President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali allocates an important space to non-political national news. LeQuotidien has a special supplement for the young, Jeunes au quotidien.
Language: French Established: 1978 Published daily
The official newspaper of the ruling party Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique, the pages of Le Renouveau are exclusively dedicated to deliver uncritical coverage of the activities, speeches and policies of the all-powerful president Zein El Abidine Ben Ali and his party.
Language: Arabic Established: 2006 Published weekly
The latest publication to be authorized by the restrictive Tunisian authorities, Mouwatinoun (Citizens) is published by the legal opposition party Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL). It is one of the few oppositional newspapers that dare print critical views and detailed coverage of protests mounted by the opposition. Such publications are tolerated because they are mostly read by a marginal group of intellectuals; Mouwatinoun has nevertheless been suspended for weeks and is subject to harassment by the authorities. It is printed in a tabloid format.