By Asma Hedi Nairi
One of the enduring gains of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia has been the relative preservation of freedom of expression (Farmanfarmaian, 2017). After decades of censorship, Tunisian journalism has become active, diverse, and increasingly critical. However, with the decline in democracy, it is crucial to keep a close watch on the evolution of Tunisian media, particularly when addressing political situations such as the recent presidential discourse regarding migrants in the country.
Tunisia recently made headlines due to a concerning development of events following the country’s president Kais Saied’s discourse about sub-Saharan migrants on the 21st of February 2023. He alleged a “conspiracy that has been planned for years to bring immigrants from the Sahara countries to the country to change the demographic character of Tunisia”, adding that “The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations”. Saied called for “stopping this phenomenon” and accused the “herds of illegal immigrants” of criminality and violence.
This anti-migrant discourse has elicited various reactions and protests both nationally and internationally, with obvious condemnation from human rights institutions and the international community. What is most intriguing, however, is the position of the Tunisian written media, seemingly undecided between adopting a human-rights-based approach, a supportive discourse to the political agenda, or staying neutral.
By examining a corpus of sixty-four news reports published by three leading newspapers in Tunisia: La Presse, a Francophone publication; Al Chourouk, the most widely read Arabic newspaper; and Assabah, a third newspaper with a fairly wide readership, we aim to understand the position of the Tunisian written media when addressing human rights and democracy.
This corpus covers a two-month period between 21st of February 2023 – the date of Saied’s address to Tunisia’s National Security Council – and 21st of April 2023. In this article, the collected news items are divided into three main categories, and critical discourse analysis was conducted to examine the implemented representations, metaphors, and themes (Dijk, 205). The first category is negative news, which includes news reports that use racist discourse or present degrading and negative representations of sub-Saharan African migrants. These news items may also have a propaganda aim. The second category is neutral news items, which present incidents and events only, or report on state decisions, leaders’ opinions, and expert perspectives without clear editorial commentary. These news items typically present conflicting opinions and positions related to the issue. The third category is positive news items, which adopt a human rights approach and take a critical and investigative perspective when reporting on the escalation and results of this discourse. These news items call for accountability and respect for human rights.
By organizing the collected news items into these three categories, the study was able to examine the various approaches taken by the media when reporting on this issue. This allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the media discourse surrounding sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia. The findings are presented below, organized in ascending order based on the number of articles included in each of the three categories.
- A Fading Shadow of Human-Rights Journalism:
The presence of an active, investigative, and critical voice within a media landscape is a crucial indicator of freedom of expression and a vital safeguard for democracy. As the media’s role extends beyond merely reporting news, it should also shoulder the responsibility of acting as society’s conscience, shedding light on significant issues, and explaining their importance. In the collection of reports we analysed, it was alarming to discover that only four news items were categorized as positive, accounting for a mere six percent of the total corpus. These four articles showcased human rights-based discourse, acknowledged concerns about migrants’ rights and condemned hate speech.
- A Dominant Xenophobic Discourse:
Approximately forty-five percent of the corpus contained negative news items, featuring xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourse. These articles utilized dehumanizing representations and emphasized the security threats posed by sub-Saharan African migrants in the country. The prevalence of such news items was particularly noticeable in the Arabic-written newspapers, which are widely read and have a greater potential to influence public opinion and reinforce xenophobic attitudes towards migrants.
Many news reports in this category have adopted a supportive stance towards the anti-immigrant discourse of the President. Some do so directly by reiterating arguments that the president has already made, while others do so indirectly by denying that Tunisia is ‘racist’ and insisting that the president’s discourse was manipulated. Some news reports also utilize conspiracy theory arguments, which are apparent in the media discourse surrounding recent events. Moreover, this category also includes accusations that civil society and human rights institutions are complicit in foreign conspiracies. In fact, the element of foreign interventions and conspiracy theories was clearly addressed in the frame of this discourse:
- Blackmail and frequent European and American statements about immigration… a political pressure card. (Al Chourouk, 2023)
- The “file” of sub-Saharan Africans: a matter of racism and respect for human rights, or a settlement project and a change in the demographics of Tunisia? (Assabah, 2023)
The written press frequently employs terms such as “file” or “problematic” when discussing the issue of Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees in Tunisia, which represents one of several linguistic tactics dehumanizing these individuals. Titles incorporating water metaphors, such as “the flow of Sub-Saharan migrants“, are also prevalent and bear a resemblance to anti-migrant discourses found in Western media (Charteris-Black, 2006). Other news reports have featured headlines such as “Following the increase in the number of bodies of shipwrecked migrants: Morgues saturated” (La Presse, 2023), which present a clinical and detached description of the situation concerning the bodies of Sub-Saharan African migrants. The focus on the morgue’s capacity and the logistical challenges faced by the healthcare system when handling the deceased fosters a sense of objectification.
For instance, the use of conspiracy theories serves to legitimize anti-migrant rhetoric by adopting a nationalist stance and reinforcing negative representations of sub-Saharan migrants. The presentation of sub-Saharan migrants as a threat to public order, national security, and identity perpetuates xenophobic arguments and was clearly present within the corpus:
‘’The attitude towards Africans today is not a matter of human rights or the rights of mistreated immigrants, as much as it is a matter of confronting a European project that aims to settle Africans in Tunisia and a settlement process for them on our lands […] The situation of Africans in this remarkable way, with these large numbers, is an abnormal situation, behind which is a criminal arrangement that was prepared at the beginning of the century to change the demographic composition of the Tunisian people.’’ (Assabah, 2023)
Such rhetoric reinforces unfounded fears that migrants will alter Tunisia’s demographic makeup and eliminate its socio-cultural characteristics, knowing that the most recent research conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, published in 2021, reveals that the population of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa residing in Tunisia is only around 21,466 individuals, inclusive of students (representing less than 0.2% of the total population). This data refutes the prejudiced, racially charged rhetoric that relies on magnification and securitization tactics when addressing migration-related matters in Tunisia.
On the other hand, some news items specifically reported individual incidents between sub-Saharan African immigrants and police forces, categorizing them under these newspapers ‘crimes and order’ sections. However, only two news reports covered allegations and violations towards African migrants by Tunisian nationals, despite such incidents being clearly reported by human rights institutions and citizen journalists.
The majority of the news items under this category rely on fear-mongering and stereotypes and reflect a strong xenophobic tone implemented in a supportive stance to the Saied’s political discourse and causing one to reflect on the impartiality of these media channels.
- A Neutrality Foretelling Evil:
During the critical period analyzed, a significant portion of the news items collected displayed neutrality in tone, despite the expectation that they take a more proactive stance. In fact, more than half of the corpus, or fifty-one percent, consisted of thirty-two neutral reports. These reports mainly focused on governmental actions in response to the events, such as initiating a ‘’green line’’ phone operator for migrants to receive support from governmental institutions. They also reported on ministerial and political meetings, as well as civic announcements and opinions related to the question of sub-Saharan Africans in the country.
This neutrality could be interpreted as the result of Tunisian written media’s adherence to the principles of objectivity and impartiality. However, it may also indicate a failure to address adequately significant human rights issues, which are inherently tied to the democratic situation in the country. The prevalence of neutral reporting is a cause for concern and highlights the degradation of freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly in the written press.
Journalists have a vital role to play in times of crisis by providing critical analysis and investigative reporting that holds those in power accountable. However, the abundance of neutral reporting suggests that journalists may face pressures or threats limiting their ability to report freely and without fear of retribution. This development is deeply concerning for the state of democracy and freedom of the press in Tunisia, and it requires urgent action to ensure that journalists are able to report on issues of public interest without fear of censorship or persecution.
While some academic resources have highlighted the liberal character of the Tunisian local media channels , our analysis of the coverage of the anti-migrant discourse in Tunisia reveals that the Tunisian written media is increasingly adopting a non-participant character, if not playing the three wise monkeys (Bassil & Kassem, 2021).
The above analysis draws attention to two alarming issues in Tunisian media: the looming shadow of censorship and the concerning presence of racist and xenophobic discourse. The prevailing neutral reporting may signal limitations on freedom of expression, while the abundance of negative and xenophobic content suggests possible racism. This troubling media landscape potentially risks escalating social tensions and spreading racist attitudes. Highlighting a significant human rights concern, it underscores the urgency for a balanced and informative media landscape that not only safeguards the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and the fundamental human right to journalism, but also fosters a harmonious society respecting everyone’s dignity and rights.
Moreover, the accusations made in some reports within the Tunisian written media, suggesting human rights institutions are complicit in foreign conspiracies, threaten to undermine the crucial role civil society and these institutions play in preserving and advancing democratic values. This phenomenon highlights the clear risk to democracy and exposes how the media might be used as a tool to target and attack human rights institutions and defenders, effectively hindering democratic processes. In light of this and Tunisia’s recent history of distress and censorship, it is vital for media professionals and journalists to tread carefully. The industry’s seeming commitment to objectivity might be a mere facade. Instead, Tunisian journalism should place greater emphasis on understanding and critically engaging with issues related to human rights and democracy, including matters pertaining to migrants.
Farmanfarmaian, R. (2017). Media and the politics of the sacral: freedom of expression in Tunisia after the Arab Uprisings. Media, Culture & Society, 39(7), 1043-1062.
Bassil, N., & Kassem, N. (2021). The subtle dynamics of power struggles in Tunisia: Local media since the Arab Uprisings. Media and Communication, 9(4), 286-296.
Van Dijk, T. A. (2015). Critical discourse analysis. The handbook of discourse analysis, 466-485. Charteris-Black, J. (2006). Britain as a container: Immigration metaphors in the 2005 election campaign. Discourse & Society, 17(5), 563-581.