Rarely has Tunisia’s political horizon ever appeared so foggy. Opponents are behind bars. Journalists are facing lawsuits. On March 23, Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni evoked « Tunisia’s collapse ». Several days later, French president Emannuel Macron noted that in « Tunisia, tremendous political tension and severe economic and social crisis in the absence of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund are very concerning ». Tunisian television has, in the meantime, turned its gaze elsewhere. Even outside the month of Ramadan, entertainment dominates the airwaves.
Five stations, zero politics
One of the most widely watched television stations, El Hiwar Ettounsi, no longer covers political news. In 2021, the station renounced its landmark primetime show « Tounes El Yaoum » presented by Myriam Belkadhi. This cancellation was due to « budgetary restrictions decided by the station » as the show’s host explained. Prior to 2020, El Hiwar Ettounsi aired a number of prime time political shows including « Al Yawm Al Thamen » and « Fil Barnamej ».
This season, TV station Carthage+ canceled its last weekly political prime time program, « Bila Hiad ». So did Tunisna TV, which suspended production of « Noktet Isstefham ».
Another example, the television station Nessma, is symbolic in this regard. Once specializing in around-the-clock news and having campaigned for its founder Nabil Karoui during the 2019 presidential and legislative elections, the station is now almost entirely dedicated to comedy and drama series.
Hannibal TV also no longer has any political programs in its lineup. Its show « Yahdoth Fi Tounes » which covered political news turned its focus this season to social issues. According to their licenses, however, all five of these stations remain generalist channels.
An increasingly disinterested audience?
During prime time hours each day, Al Wataniya airs « El Wataniya El An ». It is the only political show on Tunisia’s primary state-owned television station. Attessia TV has also retained just one political show, the prime time program « Rendez-vous 9 ». And yet ever since Attessia was launched, the station had always maintained a varied lineup of political shows, even producing its own news broadcast during its first season. Zitouna TV once had two programs dedicated to politics, « Maa Mokdad » and « Hassad 24 ». The same was true for Al Janoubia with « Bel bount El arith » and « Boubaker, Tabdaa El Hikaya ».
Moez Ben Gharbia produced and hosted « Attessia Massa’an » a political show on El Hiwar Ettounsi from 2012 to 2014. He then founded and ran Attessia in 2015 before landing at Carthage+ in 2019. He has since left TV for radio, and explained to Nawaat in an interview that the withdrawal of politics from television stems from public disinterest. « In 2012, the audience for political programming beat all records and was ahead of entertainment shows. At the time, Tunisians were discovering political shows. That enthusiasm has waned over the years, especially since 2016. Tunisians have turned away from political shows because they no longer have confidence in politicians » Gharbia told Nawaat.
Tunisians’ skepticism with regard to politics is evident in participation rates for the country’s elections. In 2014, 68.36% of Tunisians voted in legislative elections, compared with 41.7% in 2019 and 11% in 2022.
For journalism and communication professor Larbi Chouikha, it is not so much the idea of politics as it is the approach to addressing politics that is unappealing to Tunisians. To back up this claim, Chouikha points to the long-lasting success of the radio program Midi Show on Mosaique FM.
More profitable: entertainment
The political changes set into motion by July 25 coincided with the Covid-19 health crisis. This anxiety-ridden period contributed to TV stations’ decision to abandon political programming. « Tunisians no longer want to watch political programs wrought with tension and disputes. It’s what we call « news fatigue ». It’s a global phenomenon », observes Sadok Hammami.
Television stations have since focused on entertainment programs, during which current events are sometimes evoked between two product placement segments. This practice has had the effect of toning down the seriousness of political discussions given the quality of commentators.
According to Ben Gharbia, politics are more problematic than they are profitable for the owners of television stations. « Current political events are covered throughout the day by the multitude of radio stations as well as on social media networks. Advertisers are now focusing on the digital sphere. With the country’s economic crises and, by extension, the media’s economic situation, stations have started to produce programs that are inundated by product placement segments » says Ben Gharbia. He continues:
« Producing political programs is also costly. A quality program costs somewhere around a million dinars annually ».
Television stations which present themselves as generalist, operating under the obligation to provide varied programming (culture, politics, entertainment, etc.), are not actually that. On this point, Sadok Hammami reproaches the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) for its lack of transparency. « Contrary to other regulatory authorities in the world, the HAICA does not publish stations’ license agreements, thus avoiding the responsibility of controlling them. The stations take advantage of this opacity to avoid being held publicly accountable ».
The result? Smooth sailing for so-called entertainment shows and their built-in product placement segments, as memories of varied programming offerings fade into the distance. And thus viewers are deprived of their right to information.
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