For the media to play a role in the new political order, he argued, the issues of the past would need to be addressed. “Press criminals”—pro-Ben ‘Ali journalists—should be prosecuted, a new legal framework adopted for the profession and new programs established to train aspiring journalists.
Bounenni’s article captured a prevailing sentiment that emerged in the wake of the revolution. At the time, state development agencies, foreign media companies and international organizations alike were focused on transforming Tunisia’s media sector. The European Union—which had already been active under Ben ‘Ali with a media support program that began in 2008—expanded the program twice in the years after the uprising. Other large international organizations, like UNESCO, opened offices in its aftermath. These bodies contributed to a burgeoning media scene. They encouraged journalists operating in the region and Europe to relocate to Tunis.
Between 2020 and 2022, I interviewed several Tunisia-based reporters connected to the transnational media scene about the challenges of navigating local realities as they intersect with foreign influences. The growth of Tunisia’s transnational media sector has reproduced the shortcomings of transnational democracy promotion. So-called experts imported their standardized understanding of media modernization. They pursued lofty objectives, like strengthening democracy and the market economy at the regional level, overlooking the struggles of local journalists amid ongoing political and socioeconomic precarity.
Meanwhile, Gulf states, most notably the UAE, have also tried to influence Tunisian mainstream and social media to promote their own political agendas, attempting to sway North African public opinion in the context of their military involvement in Libya and regional competition with Qatar.
Following president Kais Saied’s July 2021 constitutional coup, press freedoms in Tunisia have faced new threats, exposing the contradictions and divides that continue to shape the sector more than a decade after the revolution.
A Hub for Maghrebi Journalism
The revolution and its aftermath turned Tunis into a highly attractive city for aspiring journalists around the Mediterranean.
In contrast to neighboring Algeria, which implements strict exchange controls, local reporters could be paid in foreign currencies without risking prosecution. Tunis provided a relatively welcoming environment for women. Moreover, it was possible for foreign journalists to obtain a visa on arrival, unlike in Algeria or Libya. Tunisia’s professional climate was also less marked by policing and suspicion. Compared to the threat of repression in Algeria, Morocco or Egypt, or the civil conflicts that have ravaged Libya since 2011, newly arrived reporters told me that relocating to Tunisia came with a promise of relative safety. Notably, the infamous External Communications Agency that used to supervise foreign journalists was dismantled in 2012.
Public authorities did still impose restrictions on journalists, who continued to face occasional violence at the hands of the police. But overall, at least according to the barometer published by Reporters without Borders, press freedoms in the country continued to grow until 2021—the year of Kais Saied’s constitutional coup.
Testifying to their feeling of increased liberty over the past decade, Tunisian journalists have often spoken up for their colleagues who are victims of state abuse in neighboring countries. In 2016, for instance, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists published a communiqué on Facebook denouncing the Egyptian government for its attacks on press freedoms.
As a result of its friendlier press environment, Tunis offered job opportunities for journalists from around the Mediterranean. After the revolution, several international media and news agencies opened offices in the capital, such as Anadolu and Al Jazeera. Moreover, local associative radios emerged thanks to a more open regulatory framework and active support by European backers such as the European Union or the Swiss government.
New digital magazines, such as Al-Qatiba and Inkyfada, combine investigation with visual journalism and rely on a relatively young pool of reporters. Some of their initial recruits included journalists who left Europe to find jobs in Tunis after the revolution. Tabiha, a Tunisian-French investigative reporter, for example, explained her desire to contribute to a form of slow journalism that offers a more accurate depiction of her parents’ country of origin, in contrast to the clichés propagated by foreign media.
The content these publications produce is often multilingual, including publications in Arabic, English and French. Their investigations are not limited to Tunisia, and Al-Qatiba in particular has worked with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (a transnational network of investigative journalists) to unearth transnational embezzlement and corruption schemes.
These outlets benefit from outside recognition, particularly in the Global North. Nawaat, for example, has received multiple international prizes after 2011. Their activities have influenced similar publications in neighboring countries, such as the Algerian digital magazine Twala, which also cooperates with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Former journalist now turned media executive Messaoud—who moved to Tunis in the mid-2000s—saw the capital as an ideal place to foster regional collaboration and develop his vision of independent pan-Maghreb journalism. Tunis is conveniently placed within driving distance of both Algeria and Libya, with direct flights to Middle Eastern and European capitals. Journalists holding a Maghrebi passport could easily organize short trips to cover events in neighboring countries.
Yet, even before the pandemic-related border closures of 2020, journalists based in Tunis and working for the foreign press have been frustrated in their attempts to report on the region. On the one hand, international media outlets and news agencies minimize travel for investigative journalism in an effort to limit their costs. On the other, freelance journalists tend to reduce their own production expenses to be able to sell their stories. Moreover, foreign (particularly European) media outlets tend to prioritize familiar topics, such as Islamism, traditional practices, women & LGBT rights, over investigative work.
Professional Networks and Social Divides
The transformation of Tunis into a hub for journalists covering the broader Maghreb is intrinsically linked to the massive influx of international organizations dedicated to development and democratization after 2011.
Under Ben ‘Ali, Tunisia had already acquired a reputation as a relatively welcoming homeport for international institutions and development aid, particularly following the relocation of the African Development Bank to the capital in 2003. With the revolution, international organizations focused on human rights and democracy promotion flocked to the scene.
For example, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies relocated its activities to Tunis in 2014. Around the same time, organizations fleeing Libya also migrated to Tunis. NGOs defending the freedom of the press, such as Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders, followed a similar path and opened offices in the country after the revolution.
In the Tunisian capital, the lines between transnational democracy promoters, technicians of development and media professionals are often blurred. For instance, Hichem Snoussi, a former TV journalist and one of the first local representatives of Article 19, was later appointed as a member of the High Independent Authority of Audiovisual Communication (HAICA)—an independent regulatory body created by the 2014 constitution, which itself benefited from European technical and financial support.
Professional networks spanning the media and governance sectors have shaped the careers of many binational and/or bilingual journalists throughout the decade, in turn influencing the news that is produced.
Desk journalists in need of a quote to complete an article in time rely on connections with political, economic and transnational elites, who tend to live in the wealthy northern suburbs of the Tunis governorate. These connections also help journalists secure financial resources and opportunities for professional development. Binational or bilingual reporters who were able to monetize their language skills and hybrid identity gained access to the “world of press conferences,” as one of my interviewees put it, and its short or long-term gigs.
Tania, a French-Algerian journalist who had been residing in Tunis on and off since 2014, eventually left her job at a news agency to join an NGO defending human rights. Other journalists I spoke to found temporary or lasting employment working in communications with the African Development Bank or the EU Delegation in Tunisia.
In late 2022, Nasser, a Tunisian journalist freelancing for English-speaking media, told me that Tunis was a great space to connect with a selection of key local players and foreign organizations. But in his view, the increasing access of Tunisian journalists to transnational spaces has come with a cost.
In many ways, the transnational dynamics shaping the media sector reproduce existing social divides in Tunisia. For example, a freelance reporter employed by a European magazine or a foreign NGO can be paid in euros and earn twice the average monthly Tunisian salary by writing a couple of short articles or contributing to a report. Working with local media outlets, on the other hand, means economic vulnerability, especially in the eyes of those who have experience abroad or with international media. Foreign media organizations nonetheless tend to demand greater flexibility, turning many journalists into economically privileged yet unstable gig workers.
This flexibility offers less physical security than full-time work. During a trip as a freelance reporter embedded with Libyan militias in 2011, Tabiha was left behind as a battle raged nearby. Her colleagues employed by a major European broadcaster, however, were swiftly evacuated. Fixers used by foreign reporters are especially precarious. Paid as locals, they also lack a legal framework regulating their profession. Fixers network and serve as interpreters and drivers, effectively performing most of the actual reporting for foreign journalists while not receiving recognition through bylines.
More generally, the sector itself is marked by a political and economic divide. Mainstream Tunisian media are still often controlled by national elites who were previously associated with Ben ‘Ali and routinely use these outlets to gain influence.
Meanwhile, more critical and innovative media outlets are largely dependent on foreign donors interested in promoting democracy and who may see media as form of soft power. For instance, Al-Qatiba—a project of the Tunisia-based regional media initiative Taqallam, which supports freedom of expression and creativity—received funding from the European Endowment for Democracy. Such dependence incentivizes these outlets to publish in French or in English rather than Arabic to make their work visible to their backers. It also raises questions about the sustainability of their business model. Ultimately, the support granted by foreign liberal technocratic organizations cannot replace a local base of readers and backers in the long term.
Reaction, Resistance and Exile
In January of 2023, more than a dozen local and foreign journalists were attacked by the Tunisian police as they covered a protest, held on the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, to denounce Kais Saied’s power-grab.
The moment marked a significant escalation in the government’s offensive against independent media. Elected in 2019 on the promise of transforming the political system to give power back to the people, Saied has grown increasingly intolerant of public criticism since his constitutional coup de force in July 2021.
Tunisia’s intensifying economic crisis has led to a growing reliance on foreign financial support, notably from the Gulf Cooperation Council and Algeria. As the political crisis between Ennahdha—the dominant party in the parliament—and the presidency escalated in 2020, the UAE and Saudi Arabia supported the release of hostile media coverage. They likely orchestrated online disinformation to discredit the party, helping enable Saied’s takeover.
Following the 2021 suspension of parliament, several national media outlets were banned from broadcasting. The HAICA notably suspended Nessma TV—a channel that had been founded by the controversial businessman Nabil Karoui in 2007 with the financial backing of European investors, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset. Karoui also happened to be Saied’s main challenger during the 2019 presidential election. Eventually, Nessma was allowed to resume its broadcasting under a new name in 2022. The pressure on the media sector has nevertheless continued, leading the HAICA itself to denounce the government’s repressive stance.
These similarities point to the growing security cooperation between the two countries. The Algerian security services have worked hard to silence the community of opponents living in Tunisia. For instance, Amazigh activist Slimane Bouhafs was abducted in the center of Tunis and brought back to Algiers in August 2021. More recently, Tunis-based researcher and co-founder of Twala Raouf Farrah was arrested while visiting his family in Annaba and indicted for allegedly releasing confidential information and illegally financing Algerian news organizations. Meanwhile, Nabil Karoui and his brother Ghazi were arrested in Algiers and fled in extremis to Barcelona before their scheduled deportation to Tunisia.
Transnational democracy promoters have responded to this reactionary wave, supplementing their usual tools of awards, training and funding with increasingly alarmed communiqués. Since 2021, a number of organizations have denounced the worsening situation of the press in Tunisia, including the Federation of Arab Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, and Reporters without Borders.
These organizations support the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), which is leading the on-the-ground mobilization against the repressive turn. Along with two US-based organizations, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the SNJT co-published an appeal to the UN Human Rights Council documenting a “steady rise in incidents of assaults against journalists,” “restrictions to information access,” and “the leveraging of a number of [Ben ‘Ali]-era laws to restrict freedom of expression.” But such denunciations are unlikely to turn the tide in the face of an effort led by nation-states across the region. Furthermore, Saied’s supporters often portray foreign criticism as a form of neocolonial interference, allowing the president to position himself as the guardian of national sovereignty and independence.
The current media environment has forced many of the journalists interviewed for this article to make career-defining choices. Some have already left Tunisia. Others are thinking of doing so, following a trend visible among human rights NGOs. But not everyone is able to move. In many ways, the ability to relocate away from Tunisia underscores the disconnect of those who are embedded in the transnational field of democracy promotion. It is the struggles of local journalists, their ability to navigate a precarious economic situation and resist state pressure, that will ultimately determine the future of Tunisian media.
[Thomas Serres is an assistant professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz.]
 Interview with Tabiha (pseudonym), Tunisian-French investigative journalist, 2022.
 Interview with Messaoud (pseudonym), Algerian-French former journalist now media executive, 2021.
 Interviews with Tania (pseudonym), Algerian-French journalist working for a news agency, 2020; Jamil (pseudonym), Algerian freelance journalist, 2021; and Lamine (pseudonym), Tunisian journalist working with local and foreign magazines, 2022.
 Interviews with Tania, Algerian-French journalist working for a news agency, 2020; with Messaoud, Algerian-French former journalist now media executive, 2021; and with Saif (pseudonym), Tunisian-French journalist working for a regional magazine, 2021.
 Informal discussion with Nasser (pseudonym), Tunisian freelance journalist, Fall 2022.
 Interviews with Interviews with Saif, Tunisian-French journalist working for a regional magazine, 2021 and Lamine, Tunisian journalist working with local and foreign magazines, 2022.
 Interview with Tabiha, Tunisian-French investigative journalist, 2022.
 Committee to Protect Journalists, National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists, and The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, “Joint Stakeholder Submission to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review – Republic of Tunisia—State of Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom in Tunisia,” November 2022.