Print is the least popular media sector. According to estimates, about 50 newspapers are published and around 100,000 copies are sold per day. 76% of those reading newspapers read them in Arabic. Only 38% of Tunisians consider that the information disseminated in the press is reliable.
Most newspapers owners are family businesses, which do not seem to be active in other business sectors, apart from newspaper printing. Three out of the ten newspapers that were analysed are managed by the state - they are published by the Snipe or Dar Assabah, a private company that was confiscated in 2011. Two newspapers belong to the publishing house Dar Anouar. Al Bayane belongs to an employers organisation. In contrast to the audio-visual sector, partisan media is permitted. The Islamist party Ennahda owns for example the weekly Al Fajr, and the Workers Party the weekly Sawt Shaab.
The print media during the Ben Ali regime
During the old regime, newspapers were censored and directors were imprisoned or threatened. Unlike in the audio-visual sector, opposition newspapers existed, but were very marginalised.
In addition to direct censorship, the state exercised control through the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE), which functioned as a propaganda tool. The ATCE had the monopoly to distribute state advertising, which was used as a mean to influence editorial policies as well as content. The mission of the department of political affairs of the Ministry of Interior was to control all editorial content prior to release. It was also responsible for issuing licences and authorizing newspaper circulation. It also prepared reports on the functioning of the media and the behaviour of independent journalists.
How has the situation changed since the Revolution?
In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Revolution, newspapers mushroomed - reaching a peak of 228 publications. But soon after, titles quickly disappeared again due to a lack of funding or ties to the former regime. The most recent estimations assume that the print market narrowed down to around 50 titles.
Since the Ministry of Information vanished, no regulatory body exists for the print sector that would publish coherent and official figures on the number, sales and distribution of newspapers. Distribution figures are, if available, inflated to attract advertisers.
Another post-revolutionary change concerns the licensing process: no official license is needed anymore, a simple declaration to the District Court is now sufficient to start a newspaper.
In order to improve the conditions for the print sector, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), the Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors (FTDJ) and the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) want to set up a Press Council. Its declared objective is to promote the respect of journalistic ethics. It would also provide advice on public financial support through advertising and subscriptions.
The financial crisis of the print sector
The print sector is confronted with a major financial crisis. The main funding sources are state subscriptions, advertising revenues and newspaper sales. The press had to take some severe blows: in 2012, the state annulled all its newspaper subscriptions, advertising revenues are dropping and the readership is defecting to alternative information sources. Especially, the competition of an increasing number of electronic media adds to these difficulties.
The sector accumulates an estimated debt of 8 million dinars to the Social Security Fund (CNSS), and some journalists face a precarious financial situation, often being paid late or being underpaid. The lack of regulation for the distribution of state advertising remains a serious problem for many newspaper editors. Some scholars however also point to the quality of certain newspapers, often short of journalistic standards, and the need to increase the readership to qualify for public advertising. So far no institution controls the distribution of advertising, pending the creation of a new regulatory body.
BBC Media Action (2014), After the Revolution: Libyan and Tunisian Media through the people’s eyes
A. Hizaoui, interview, April 29, 2016
INRIC (2012), Instance Nationale pour la Réforme de l’Information & de la Communication: Rapport Général
A. Khochtali & H. Ghribi (Dar Assabah), interview, May 9, 2016
D. Neji (Présidence du Gouvernement), interview, May 18, 2016
Northwestern University in Qatar (2015), Media Use in the Middle East 2015
B.Tayaa (SNIPE), interview, April 21, 2016
UNESCO (2012), Assessment of Media Development in Tunisia
T. Zahar (FTDJ), interview, May 5, 2016