ARTICLE 19 calls on the Tunisian government to retract and revise a Decree issued on 20 November regarding financial aid to the private media sector to address the impact of coronavirus restrictions. The Decree fails to set appropriate conditions under which institutions can benefit from the financial aid, focusing only on institutional status as opposed to respect for journalistic ethics and innovative and informative reporting on facts regarding the crisis. The process for distributing aid is also insufficiently transparent and lacking involvement from civil society and other stakeholders. We urge the government to retract the Decree, and address these concerns to ensure provisions on this issue meet the requirements of the Tunisian Constitution and international standards on freedom of expression.
On 20 November, the Tunisian government issued a Decree fixing the conditions and procedures under which media can benefit from temporary aids for the private media sector, in an effort to address the repercussions of restrictions to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
This government Decree comes in implementation of the provisions of the first paragraph of Article 8 of the President of the Government’s Decree-law No. 30 of 10 June 2020, on measures to “support the foundations of national solidarity” and support individuals and institutions with the repercussions of the spread of the Coronavirus. It stipulates that 5 million dinars shall be allocated to the state budget “to support the state’s communication plan in confronting the repercussions of the application of measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) and support the private media sector affected by the application of these measures.” The support benefits the national, regional, and corporate media institutions of the private sector, including newspapers, radio, and television. The conditions and procedures for benefiting from the subsidy are regulated by governmental Decree.
The second article of the government Decree sets out the administrative and financial conditions that must be met in order for a media institution to obtain financial assistance, such as status vis-à-vis the National Register of Institutions or the National Social Security Fund or tax status.
While this type of requirement is necessary, the Government should have set other conditions relating to respect for journalistic ethics, support for media and information literacy and the dissemination of innovative press practices in order to ensure that public aid to the media is consistent with international standards, which emphasize that governments and public bodies should not use their jurisdiction over public funds to try to influence media content.
Objective criteria should also be established to assess the actual contribution of the media institution to the response to Covid-19, through the dissemination of accurate information about the health crisis, fact-checking rumors, and nurturing an open public debate through enabling discussion of the decisions of the authorities. This would better fit the purpose of the decree to address the repercussions of the spread of the coronavirus.
However, the conditions mentioned in Article 2 of the Decree do not enable an assessment of the extent to which the financial aid meets this purpose. This is contrary to the provisions of Article 10 of the Constitution, which states that “the State shall ensure the proper use of public funds (…).” This means that the public interest purpose of such funds should be defined in the Decree and not used to undermine the independence of the editorial line of the media.
Article 4 of the government Decree states that ” An advisory committee to the President of the Government shall be created to study the requests to utilize circumstantial support.” According to Article 5, the committee is composed of a representative of the President of the Government, a representative of the government media and communications department, a representative of the Ministry of Finance, a representative of the National Fund for Social Security, and a representative of the National Office for Radio and Television Broadcasting.
This structure reflects the absolute dominance of the executive branch in the field of freedom of the media and the press in Tunisia, at the expense of the participation of civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders. The entire process is therefore lacking in transparency, participation, and openness and opens the door to the possibility of distributing financial subsidies according to considerations contrary to the Tunisian Constitution and the purpose of the legislative mandate. The composition of the Committee should be reviewed and opened up to the participation of media professionals and relevant civil society organizations, so that the Committee’s advisory opinion is based on criteria that objectively take into account the public interest purpose of the financial support.
ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on the Tunisian government to withdraw the Decree, in order to review it to fully comply with the constitutional and legislative provisions and related international standards.
ARTICLE 19’s report on Regulation on State Aid to Tunisian Media in the Context of a Democratic Transition  contains the international standards that must be respected in the field of public media assistance, which can be used in the context of legal texts related to this field.
 Joint Declaration between The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the year 2002.