Bill to end TV licensing sparks protests in Tunisia

President weighs in in support of audiovisual regulatory body.
Wednesday 21/10/2020
Tunisian journalists protest against the amendment of Legislative Decree 116 in front of parliament in Tunis, on October 20, 2020, during a rally organised by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) and the General Media Federation.  Sign reads: “Hands off Decree 116”. (AFP)
Tunisian journalists protest against the amendment of Legislative Decree 116 in front of parliament in Tunis, on October 20, 2020. Sign reads: “Hands off Decree 116”. (AFP)

TUNIS – Journalists and press freedom activists protested on Tuesday outside Tunisia’s parliament against a proposed law to deregulate the media sector by removing a requirement for television and radio stations to have official licences.

The bill’s supporters include MPs from the far right Islamist Dignity Coalition, the Islamist Ennahda Movement and Qalb Tounes party.

President Kais Saied weighed in Tuesday in support of the audiovisual regulatory body and against ending licensing. Analysts said his stance means that even if voted by parliament, the bill is likely to ultimately be vetoed.

Qalb Tounes leader and media executive Nabil Karoui  is a major stakeholder in Nessma television. The channel, which faces licensing issues, played a major role in Karoui’s campaign for president last year.

About 300 protesters objected Tuesday to the projected amendments, which would end  licensing rules for radio and TV channels. They say such changes would give money interests and foreign powers the ability to create their own channels at will in Tunisia and exert undue influence over the country’s politics and shift public opinion.

“This proposed amendment presents a real threat to democracy and for the press sector,” said Mehdi Jlassi, president of the journalists’ labour syndicate.

“Cancelling licenses will open the door to corrupt money, politicians and perhaps extremists to control the sector,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, the General Media Federation, which is part of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), released a press statement calling on journalists to gather on Tuesday in front of parliament’s annex building to protest against the bill.

The Federation called on journalists to prepare to engage in “all forms of struggle” if the bill is adopted. It also urged “all MPs who believe in media freedom to reject the amendment to Decree Law No. 2011-116, which will wreak havoc in the sector.”

The Federation’s call came after the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi withdrew Monday a consensus bill to amend Decree Law No. 2011-116, which regulates freedom of audiovisual information and establishes an Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication. Mechichi’s move was slammed by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) as “sudden and irresponsible.”

“This will pave the way for the adoption of the draft amendment proposed by the Karama coalition on the eve of the draft review session,” said the union, noting that Mechichi’s move runs counter to the principle of state continuity and to commitments by the Tunisian government and state to support legislation on freedom of the press and audiovisual communication.

The union stressed that Mechichi’s decision shows the prime minister’s complicity with parties who directly benefit from the revision of Decree 116. It also accused the government of supporting illegal media institutions “who speak in the name of the parliamentary troika.”

The Tunisian Bar Association has lent its support to opponents of the amendment of the audiovisual decree.

Supporters of the bill, which was due to be discussed in parliament on Tuesday, say it will allow the sector to grow, help establish more news channels and create more jobs.

Seifeddine Maklouf, head of the Karama Coalition in parliament, said it would be good for Tunisians to have more TV news channels than the nine available now and said he saw nothing wrong with foreigners owning media in Tunisia.

Mechichi said last week he supported any initiative that would “liberalise” the media sector, while ensuring its independence.

The protesters opposed a provision in the bill that would allow a simple parliamentary majority to appoint members of the media regulator instead of the two-thirds majority that is required now.

If passed, this would allow parliamentary coalition parties backing the government to control the media regulator, in effect ending its independence, the protesters say.

UGTT Deputy Secretary-General Sami Taheri said “threats to the media sector in Tunisia are not new.”

Speaking to local media on Tuesday, he explained that the threat has been there since 2012 and more precisely, since a sit-in was organised in front of the offices of Tunisian public television following the appointment of figures close to Ennahda and its political allies to key positions.

According to Taheri, the sector will be under threat as long as “extremist parties, opposing freedoms, are represented in parliament and want to use the media to achieve their political goals.”

Saied warned Tuesday against “legal initiatives that violate constitutional provisions and those motivated by narrow interests of political and media parties and lobbies.”

The president was apparently referring to the six bills withdrawn a day before by the Mechichi government, including one relating to audiovisual communication, as well as to the draft amendment to Legislative Decree 116 related to the freedom of audiovisual communication.

Saied reiterated his commitment to “guarantee freedom of the media, speech and thought” and reaffirmed his support for “honest journalists.”

He said he was convinced of the importance of “regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms in promoting the audiovisual landscape and strengthening media pluralism and diversity, while respecting the law and national security.”