On October 31, Hannibal TV, a private news channel, announced it was temporarily suspending its broadcast in response to pressure from the Tunisian government. Over the past several months, the Tunisian government has attempted to silence numerous media outlets and suppress the political opposition. These efforts have raised multiple concerns. Since the Arab Spring revolutions, Tunisia has been viewed as a model for democracy in a region saturated with authoritarian regimes. However, in July, Tunisian President Kais Saied led a sudden coup in the North African country. Since then, the government has increasingly adopted authoritarian practices, sparking fears that the country may be turning away from democratic values and norms.
Although Tunisia underwent what many experts consider a successful Arab Spring revolution, the Tunisian people have grown increasingly discontent with their government. Earlier this year, Tunisians took to the streets to protest ongoing government corruption, the government’s lax response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent economic fallout of the coronavirus. On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended parliament, and assumed judicial authority of the country. President Saied also ended parliamentary immunity, arresting and instituting travel bans for political leaders. According to Saied, his actions directly responded to the protests, as many citizens had called for the government to step down. However, experts have noted foul play, asserting that Saied utilized the coup to solidify control over the country’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches of power. Since the coup in July, Saied has indefinitely extended the special measures he introduced and has called on the military to help enforce them.
The recent government attacks on the Tunisian press are part of Saied’s efforts to maintain and solidify his power in the country. Over the past several months, Tunisia’s media regulator, the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), closed four media institutions, one of them being Hannibal TV, claiming they violated Tunisian broadcasting laws.
Shortly before Hannibal TV announced it was halting its broadcast, Tunisian security forces raided the offices of Nessma, another private TV channel based in the city of Rades. According to a statement made by Nessma, HAICA and Tunisian security forces seized the organization’s broadcasting equipment and escorted staff from the building, claiming the channel was operating without a license. Since 2015, HAICA has issued warnings and financial penalties to Nessma. According to Ziad al-Riba, legal representative and general manager of Nessma, the company has attempted to settle its legal issues with HAICA several times since 2014. However, HAICA, which has allotted fines amounting to 1.4 billion Tunisia dinars ($492 million) to Nessma, has hindered these efforts.
In its official statements, HAICA claims that channels such as Hannibal TV and Nessma must halt broadcasting until they comply with a 2011 law requiring all broadcasting entities to operate as joint-stock companies rather than private limited companies. Organizations that broadcast without regularizing their legal status are in violation of the law. While the channels may violate certain Tunisian laws, many experts have questioned why HAICA has decided to pursue significant legal action against these channels now. Some analysts suggest it is because these channels threaten the foundation of President Saied’s new regime. Nessma TV, for example, is owned by Nabil Karoui, who was the runner-up in the 2019 presidential election that Saied won. Karoui is also the current head of the Hart of Tunisia party, allied with the Ennahda party. The Ennahda party was the first political group to oppose President Saied after the July coup. In its official statement, HAICA noted it also pressured Nessma to close its channel due to financial and administrative corruption issues, as well as concerns that the channel’s affiliation with political party leaders has influenced the content of its broadcast.
In early October, Tunisian authorities also seized broadcasting equipment used by Zitouna TV, an affiliate of Ennahda and Al-Karama, two parties that opposed Saied’s recent coup. According to HAICA, Zitouna TV has been operating illegally as well.
Since the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2010, many experts have considered Tunisia a model for democracy in the region, as many other nations who experienced social and political revolutions failed to produce democratic regimes. In 2015, a pro-democracy organization from Tunisia even won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to foster democracy and avoid conflict in the nation. However, the recent coup and efforts to quash political opposition, press freedom, and freedom of speech raise significant alarm bells. According to Abdel-Jabbar al-Madouri, a political analyst and the former editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Shaab newspaper, many journalists and media organizations have faced physical attacks, and news professionals are now facing the risk of unemployment. This begs the question as to whether Tunisia is pivoting towards an authoritarian future.