Single-minded Media Fail to Grasp Opportunities to Go Beyond Tales of Woe
Dramatic political change brought about by the fall of the former regime in January 2011 coupled with the changes in migration flows have led to the migration issue becoming a prominent focus of the Tunisian media landscape. The importance of the migration issue on the agenda of Tunisian media can be attributed to the large number of young Tunisians setting out for Europe, many of them without visas and at great risk to their lives. At the same time the conflicts in Libya and Syria have generated a large number of refugees and within the country there is a large body of migrants from African countries.
The change in the migration phenomenon has been reflected across all media platforms — in the newspapers, television and online media. Each sector of the news media, in their own way and with their own approach, deals with migration in all of its aspects, both as a source of news and as a continuing theme for editorial coverage. During 2015 and 2016 the main events that marked media coverage of migration were the tragic shipwrecks involving young Tunisians or migrants of other nationalities (Algerians, Syrians and sub-Saharans) attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in makeshift boats.
The change in the migration phenomenon has been reflected across all media platforms — in the newspapers, television and online media. Each sector of the news media, in their own way and with their own approach, deals with migration in all of its aspects, both as a source of news and as a continuing theme for editorial coverage.
During 2015 and 2016 the main events that marked media coverage of migration were the tragic shipwrecks involving young Tunisians or migrants of other nationalities (Algerians, Syrians and sub-Saharans) attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in makeshift boats. In particular, news coverage focused on:
• The appalling tragedy involving 28 young Tunisians from Ben Guerdane – a town on Tunisia’s south-east border with Libya – who made an attempt to cross from the Libyan coast at Sabratha (north-west Libya, 50km from the Tunisian border). This event was reported by media to include a total absence of attempts by Tunisian authorities to recover the bodies of those who drowned at sea and take charge of the survivors. These events figured strongly in coverage during July 2016.
• There were regular reports during 2015 and 2016 on Syrian refugees, their living conditions in Tunisia and the difficulties they contend with on a daily basis.
• Media also provided coverage arising from the presence of up to an estimated 2 million Libyans in Tunisia. Media have reported on them since the Libyan crisis in early 2011, after which, according to the International Organisation on Migration, nearly 350,000 immediately fled Libya to Tunisia, a continuing story that is set in the context of current events. This continuing coverage intensified around the public debate highlighted in media following the adoption of the new law that allows foreigners to buy land and assets in Tunisia.
• Racist attacks on sub-Saharan citizens have also been under the media spotlight. The latest took place in December 2016 following an attack on three young Congolese students.
• Another event that made headlines in Tunisian media and on the social networks was the attack on young sub-Saharan students following the defeat of a Tunisian football team playing against a team from an African country.
• The high point of migration coverage in 2015 and 2016 led to further media reflections on question of the young Tunisians who perished in the Mediterranean in 2011, which was reported by media taking a close interest in the subject.
All of these incidents and coverage indicate how Tunisian media monitor the migration issue, which becomes a hot news topic mainly when there are “dramatic shipwrecks” involving young Tunisians. Unfortunately, when media take an interest in migration it is generally not in an attempt to understand the phenomenon or its development, or the journeys of individual migrants, or their causes or their consequences, but rather to report or comment on events involving migrants of different nationalities.
There is no common approach and individual media tend to report according to their own assessment of the issue which may vary from organisation to organisation. The change of political direction in recent years has given media and journalism more editorial freedom, but it appears that there is as yet not enough capacity and confidence within journalism or common recognition of the positive role that independent, ethical and critical media should play in defending human rights and shaping public opinions.
This lack of consensus on how to report migration also leads to a lack of agreement on the way journalists use terminology in their reporting and how media describe the issues. Several media make frequent use of discriminatory language such as the terms “clandestine immigration”, “Harga“ and “Harraga “. These terms are found in articles that deal with shipwrecks involving young Tunisians, or other nationalities, attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Using terms to describe the makeshift boats such as “clandestine immigrants’ boat” tends to reflect an editorial judgement, and is not objective.
In fact, the terms used by journalists to talk about the migration issue are not always consistent. There are several examples of inconsistent terminology in different media but also within one and the same media. Many journalists do not have a good command of the words, or understanding of the definitions laid down by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or the concepts and complex aspects of the migration story. This failing may be due to unfamiliarity with the vocabulary suggested by the IOM. Often several different and thus confusion terms will be found in the same article, such as “irregular During 2015 and 2016 the main events that marked media coverage of migration were the tragic shipwrecks involving young Tunisians or migrants of other nationalities (Algerians, Syrians and sub-Saharans) attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in makeshift boats. 108 Euromed Migration IV departure”, “clandestine immigration” or “irregular immigration”.
When it comes to media coverage of the Tunisian diaspora, this is overshadowed by the focus on more dramatic news coverage and tends to revolve around occasional and seasonal events, principally the return of Tunisians living abroad to their home country during the summer holidays, summer schools or the once-yearly congress of Tunisians abroad. It is during this period that a handful of Tunisian media may talk about Tunisians living abroad, mentioning their contribution to the national economy in the form of money transfers.
However, a few television programmes endeavour to show Tunisians living abroad in a positive light. Ahlan Tounes is one such weekly programme broadcast on the national channel 1, Watania 1. Its target audience is the Tunisian community abroad. In general, Tunisian media use information articles, comments and opinion pieces to talk about migration with regular coverage of the various foreign communities in Tunisia, and particularly on Tunisians attempting to migrate, but the main focus is on shipwrecks, the hardships and the living conditions.
However, the “migration story” genre describing migrants’ life experiences is not particularly common in Tunisian media, apart from a few articles that interview Syrians in Tunisia , or which relate the schooling of Syrian and sub-Saharan children in Tunisian schools.
The nature of reporting tends to highlight the facts of the migrants’ situation and this shapes the narrative of reporting by the media. Occasionally, it is clear that some journalists reporting on the issue have trouble managing their emotions. This can be seen in their coverage of shipwrecks or when they deal with subjects about the foreign communities established in Tunisia. In some cases, their positions are negative, even openly racist. They convey stereotyped images of migrants, based on the exclusion of others.
As a result, stories about migrants have not altered the way the media report on the various groups’ everyday life experience. Indeed, as one of them points out, because journalists have their own singular way of crafting stories based upon their individual vision, belief and affiliations with the migrant communities, it affects the quality of their work. As a result, “the migration issue is not handled in an in-depth, objective way by all of the journalists in Tunisia. It is generally confined to the information,” said journalist Rim Saoudi.
This observation has been confirmed by academic research into the subject in Tunisia. Academic Riadh Ben Khalifa, in an article entitled La Harga au prisme de la presse tunisienne (February 2011 – May 2013), states that Tunisian journalists, who had been subject to stringent censorship up until then, suddenly found themselves in a climate in which they could comment freely on the migration problem.