By Nicholas Benequista
We need new metaphors to describe the threats to independent media around the world. For years, terms such as “attacked” or “besieged” were used to conjure the image of journalists resisting an onslaught from repressive leaders behind a battered rampart. In retrospect, this may have always been an imperfect metaphor, but it effectively galvanized support for press freedom: name and shame the blunt, coercive tactics of the aggressors and assist the defenders by reinforcing their media institutions with proven business strategies and established codes of ethics.
But this characterization clearly misconstrues the current nature of the challenge to vibrant and trustworthy media, which—if it must be described as a battle—would more accurately be depicted as a struggle over the very nature of the battlefield itself. The future of news, and even the future of the physical and logical infrastructure that underpins the news industry, is uncertain, and that future will be determined by innumerable decisions—large and small, local and global—about market regulations, tax policies, criminal laws, organizational procedures, technological standards, codes of ethics, and international development targets, among other enactments of our collective will. We know this because the same was true also of the telegraph, radio, television, and other once novel communication technologies:
We should remember that the history of communications technology shows us that if innovative content and forms of production appear in the early stages of a new technology and offer potential for radical change this is more often than not cancelled out or appropriated by the most powerful institutions operating within dominant technological and socio-political paradigms. “Newness” of form and content is quickly smothered by predominance, size and wealth. But history does not always repeat itself. (Fenton 2010, 13)
And indeed, many organizations, activists, and networks are working to ensure that history does not repeat itself. The Open Society Foundation’s Mapping Digital Media project sought to understand the impact of the “digital switchover” on journalism and to support reforms for ensuring those impacts were positive. Reporters without Borders’ Media Ownership Monitor is doing pioneering work to figure out who owns the world’s media outlets and to foster advocacy for greater transparency and pluralism of media systems. We at CIMA have long focused our research on the enabling environment for vibrant media, and have conducted several regional consultations to bolster multi-stakeholder coalitions for media reform, most recently in Africa. There is also a growing movement to more effectively incorporate issues related to rights, development, and democracy into Internet Governance. The research that will be carried out by the CEU’s Media and Power Research Consortium will be a valuable resource for all these efforts, and will help to strengthen the case for new initiatives that can focus on laying a future foundation for vibrant and democratic media systems.
Many examples could illustrate how competing commercial, political, and ideological forces are determining the future of news in any given country, but consider for a moment how the challenges to independent and vibrant media are playing out in Tunisia, a country that now has significant political will for progressive media reforms and yet still faces considerable challenges in the sector.
Under Ben Ali’s regime, the Press Code law established harsh fines and prison sentences on journalists for vague offenses against the state that were arbitrarily doled out by the Ministry of the Interior—with chilling effects. These repressive laws needed only target a few, small newspapers, however, as private broadcasters were prohibited from reporting on politics. Moreover, the state, ruling party, and allies of the regime controlled almost all of the significant news outlets. Independent media in Tunisia had been reduced to a small garrison of stubborn resistance.
All of that changed virtually overnight following the 2011 uprising that sent Ben Ali and his family into exile and marked the beginning of a wave of revolutions across the North Africa and the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Hundreds of news outlets emerged, repressive laws were struck from the books, the institutions that once orchestrated friendly media coverage were closed, and a process was put in place to reform the policies governing the media and communication sector (El-Issawi 2012).
But now, powerful Tunisian media owners, some of whom have long been associates of Ben Ali and his regime, are finding more subtle ways to ensure that the country’s media continues to serve their interests. In the initial rush to democratize Tunisia after the Arab Spring, an independent commission of journalists, academics and human rights lawyers was tasked with reforming media regulations and policies. Based on broad national consultation, and with input from international experts, the commission put forward several proposals that would have established an independent regulatory body, licensing policies to stimulate more competition, and frameworks for ensuring freedom of expression while promoting ethical standards (Labidi 2017).
With intense lobbying from the Syndicate of Media Outlet Owners, most of these reforms have been stalled. In the absence of a clear regulatory environment, the private media owners who had acquired licenses in the final years of the Ben Ali regime have expanded aggressively at the expense of would-be challengers and used their growing dominance of broadcast to push a self-serving and slanted news agenda. Tunisian media is no longer tightly controlled by the state, but in the absence of a system of governance in the media sector to foster the social and democratic outcomes desired by Tunisian society, powerful interests continue to predominate.
As with legacy media, an equally repressive system of internet controls in Tunisia has given way to a situation that defies a simplistic metaphor. Under Ali, sophisticated Deep Packet Inspection software helped the state to identify and block dissident content, and criminal defamation laws were used brazenly against on-line critics. At present, the capabilities for surveillance and filtering remain unused in the hands of a new organization, the Technical Telecommunications Agency, but the current law provides little to no public oversight over the activities of that agency. While the state no longer systematically abuses criminal defamation laws as it once did, those laws remain on the books and are still a threat to bloggers and citizen journalists, especially when reporting on issues related to the military or terrorism (Freedom House 2017).
But even with the lifting of the more draconian forms of internet controls, Tunisia still confronts forms of entrenched interests and economic power in the ICT sector that inhibits the freedom of citizens to fully enjoy the benefits of digital media.
State-controlled Tunisie Télécom retains a dominant position over the country’s fiber-optic internet infrastructure, and has an out-sized influence over the agency that sets telecom and internet policies, the National Telecommunication Authority. As an example of how the imbalanced governance of Tunisia’s internet governance might adversely affect citizens, the country’s three largest telecom companies in 2014 were accused of blocking internet calling apps such as Skype in contradiction of the principles of net neutrality. The companies denied the allegations, citing network congestion issues, but concerns about accountability remain (Shirayanagi 2015).
The fate of Tunisia’s media sector—whether it serves the interests of the public or the interests of the few—is clearly at stake amid this complex interplay between government institutions, private media markets, and digital technology. What’s more, as elsewhere, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic awakening is tightly intertwined with the outcome of this struggle, which will require broad-based coalitions, advocacy strategies that can stretch from the local to the global, and the research and knowledge needed to keep it all coherent and persuasive.
Tunisia provides a particularly stark example of how the challenges to vibrant media have become far more about the complex political economy of power within media systems than about coercive threats to media outlets (though, unfortunately, such threats still remain all too common). That said, Tunisia’s challenges are not unique. The disruption of journalistic practices and business models by new communication technologies has shifted power dynamics everywhere, and in ways that we have yet to fully document and evaluate through research.
There is a rich tradition of action-oriented research and activist-oriented enquiry in media and communications, and each one a product of its time and place. In the United States, Everett Parker, among others, supported the Civil Rights Movement through his research into television portrayals of minorities, while in Latin America action-oriented scholars have conducted work to bolster the efforts of alternative and community media. More recently, there has been a surge in action-oriented research among media scholars concerned with the possibilities created by the new communication technologies (see, for example, Hearn, Tacchi, Foth, & Lennie, 2009; Napoli & Aslama, 2011b; Nyre, 2010).
The growing movements for national media reform such as the one in Tunisia may have their counterpart to these respected examples in the Media and Power Research Consortium, which addresses some glaring gaps in our knowledge. First, it focuses on countries that are under-researched; our debates today are too often dominated by statistics from the Global North, with scant attention to how global trends are playing out in nuanced, contextual ways. Second, the consortium’s ambition to collect knowledge on power in three spheres—government, funding and technology—gives us a view into the complex political economy of media that is often neglected by the discrete accounts of abuses against journalists. Finally, the project’s aim to collect this data in a comparative and publicly available format will be an invaluable resource, not only for researchers seeking to draw broader conclusions, but also for the purposes of peer-to-peer learning.
The usefulness of this work, of course, will extend well beyond the inspiration it provides to the metaphor writers of our field; indeed, it may even prove to be a part of the solution to the besieged, captured, and otherwise uncertain field of news media.
El-Issawi, Fatima. 2012. “Tunisian Media in Transition.” Washington, D.C.
Fenton, Natalie. 2010. “Drowning or Waving? New Media, Journalism and Democracy.” In New Media, Old News: Journalism & Democracy in the Digital Age, edited by Natalie Fenton, 3–16. London: Sage Publications.
Freedom House. 2017. “Tunisia: Freedom on the Net 2017.” Washington, D.C.
Hearn, Greg, Jo Tacchi, Marcus Foth, and June Lennie. 2009. Action Research and New Media. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.
Labidi, Kamel. 2017. “Tunisia’s Media Barons Wage War on Independent Media Regulation.” In In the Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy, edited by Anya Schiffrin. Washington, D.C.: Center for International Media Assistance.
Napoli, Philip, and Minna Aslama, eds. 2011. Communications Research in Action: Scholar-Activist Collaborations for a Democratic Public Sphere. New York: Fordham University Press.
Nyre, Lars. 2010. “Experimenting with New Media for Journalism.” Nordicom Review 31: 83–93.
Shirayanagi, Kouichi. 2015. “Five Years after Revolution, Internet Censorship Is Creeping Back into Tunisia.” Vice.
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