Tunisia: New election rules threaten media freedom and independence

Tunisia: New election rules threaten media freedom and independence - Media

Tunisian journalist, Tunis. Photo: Shutterstock

ARTICLE 19 calls on Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to withdraw its decision regarding audiovisual coverage of the elections because of the danger it poses to an independent media landscape and its blatant assault on the powers of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA).

On 18 November 2022, the ISIE announced that it was modifying its decision No.8 of 2018, dated 20 February 2018, which set out the rules and conditions the media must adhere to during electoral and referendum campaigns.

This decision followed a dispute with the HAICA, which in turn issued a directive decision on 16 November 2022 regarding audiovisual media coverage of the legislative election campaign and the regulations that must be followed.

According to the HAICA, the reason for the disagreement was the lack of clarity on the process that shaped the joint decision guaranteeing values of pluralism and diversity and all candidates’ right to access media. For its part, the ISIE expressed surprise that the HAICA unilaterally issued a directive decision, despite the fact it had asked the HAICA on several occasions to provide it with the draft of the joint decision. 

ARTICLE 19 deplores the disagreement between the two bodies because of the serious impact it has not only on the media landscape, but also on the electoral process, citizens’ rights to access information about candidates, and citizens’ confidence in independent bodies, whose most important functions are to promote democracy and ensure political and ideological pluralism in the public sphere.  

Flaws in the election authority’s decision-making process

ARTICLE 19 also draws attention to the legal weaknesses that marred the ISIE decision-making process and its violation of the laws in force. 

First, the electoral law gives the HAICA several powers regarding audiovisual coverage of the elections in accordance with the provisions of articles 65, 66, 67, 68, 73 and 74 of the law, all of which are valid and cannot be repealed by an administrative decision because such a decision carries less authority than a   law pertaining to the same issue. 

Second, regardless of the legal flaws that marred the ISIE’s decision, it is unrealistic that the body would be in a position or be prepared to apply the ruling: it lacks the necessary technical equipment or efficient human resources capable of monitoring all audiovisual content, and for assessing the extent to which the media adhere to regulations on pluralism. These factors could lead to sanctions being brought against media groups without the necessary compliance with professional, objective and legal standards. Thus, such an unclear legal framework would threaten media freedom and the editorial independence of audiovisual media institutions, or would push them to boycott elections in order to avoid financial penalties. 

In view of these considerations, ARTICLE 19 calls on the ISIE to withdraw its decision, distance the media from existing political tensions, and respect article 67 of the electoral law, which stipulates that the authority must issue a joint decision with the HAICA regarding campaign rules for audiovisual media.