Tunis – The Tunisian media landscape is set to enter a new stage with the election Sunday by the members of National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), the main reporters’ union in the North African country, of a younger leadership determined to defend the rights of media professionals and the launch last week of a press council, a new institution tasked with overseeing respect of media ethics.
The SNJT election came at the end of the union’s fifth convention, held September 19-20 under the theme “The rights of journalists, a foundation of press freedom.” The high turnout of journalists underlined Tunisian reporters’ commitment to improving their professional conditions and meeting the various challenges they face.
Journalists chose the nine members of the new executive bureau of the SNJT for the 2020-2023 term out of 33 candidates. The elections witnessed the rise of a new, young leadership, as illustrated by the emergence of Amira Mohamed, a young private radio reporter who received the highest number of votes (287 ) and is expected to be the next president of the SNJT.
A few days earlier, there was an announcement of the creation of a new independent Tunisian Press Council, which brings together representatives of journalists, media owners and civil society to promote media ethics, defend quality journalism and protect citizens’ rights to free and balanced information.
Discussions about launching the council started in 2012 but establishing it took a long time, while criticism of the Tunisian press intensified, especially after the recent presidential and legislative elections, where some accused the media of bias and lack of professionalism.
Analysts said that the creation of the council, coupled with the presence of the other bodies like the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), a TV and radio regulatory body, and the SNJT, will have a positive impact on safeguarding press freedom and ensuring quality of media practice.
The council consists of nine members, including three members appointed by the SNJT, (the Council’s president, Itidel Majbri is one of them), two members representing the public who are chosen by the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), one member appointed by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), two members appointed by the Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors and one member who is chosen by the National Syndicate of Private Broadcasters.
The new institution, which will deal with all types of media, will rely on a set of mechanisms to help the media adhere to professional ethics as well as assist the sector establish an ethical code regulating its relations with the public so that it has a voice in defining programmes, especially when it comes to public media outlets.
Financing for the council will come from a variety of sources. Half of the funds allocated will come from public institutions, while the rest of the contributions will be provided by a number of partners, such as the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors, the National Syndicate of Private Broadcasters, the National Syndicate of Private Television Channels and the Tunisian League of Human Rights.
The Council will have two basic tasks: Manage citizens’ complaints related to journalistic production and establish an ethical code improving the quality of the press and meeting the needs of the public.
Council President Itidel Majbri said that the new institution will ensure self-regulation by journalists and will review complaints submitted by the public, which will be resolved based on mediation and reform processes.
She noted that the Press Council will seek mediation that could lead to the issuance of apologies to the plaintiff in appropriate cases. If the journalist does not issue such an apology, the case could be published on a website supervised by the council.
The Press Council monitors compliance with the ethics of journalistic practice, directs media institutions and journalists, protects their independence and issues statements commenting on draft laws and regulations related to the media sector.
Majbri indicated that there will be three committees formed as part of the Press Council, one for research and training, one specialised in ethics and another to manage complaints.
Najat Zammouri, a member of the governing body of the LTDH, considered establishing the council to be an important step towards self-improvement of the media. Zammouri added that this structure will not replace the judiciary process, but will bind media professionals to basic professional ethics through effective and pedagogical decisions.
Some journalists asked whether there was overlap between the powers of the Press Council and HAICA. HAICA president Nouri Lajmi noted that the audio-visual regulatory body monitors and enforces legal guidelines while the council is responsible for ethics.
Lajmi added: “There will be recurring consultations and meetings between members of the council and members of the authority. When we will receive complaints related to ethics, we will refer them to the council who will do the same when it comes to the legal issues.” He said he hopes to see positive results of their cooperation.
HAICA monitors Tunisia’s media scene, but often has difficulty enforcing its decisions due to weak executive branch support. Political clientelism is perceiving as shielding some radio and TV stations from legal compliance. In addition, some political activists do themselves run private media outlets.
The Press Council will assist media organisations in establishing mechanisms to respect professional ethics. It will play a mediating role between the press organisations and the public and work to improve legislation related to the sector.
Mannoubi Marrouki, a member of the council, said: “Our goal is to achieve quality journalism that is in line with the democratic and transitional path the country is going through and with freedom of expression and opinion.”