Media Reform and Censorship in Ben Ali's Tunisia

By Eoghan Stafford
Submitted to Session P5026 (Media: Circulation and Censorship, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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Why do authoritarian rulers sometimes relax censorship of the news media and at other times tighten it? I present a theory of media liberalization by autocrats, using Tunisia in the early years of Ben Ali's rule (1987-1992) as a case study to evaluate the plausibility of the theory. I argue that leaders who face simultaneous threats from inside and outside of their governments (such as groups that might engage in protests, strikes, or coups) are likely to provide more freedom to the media than authoritarian governments usually do. But those freedoms can evaporate as quickly as they materialized when those threats are removed.

Media freedoms can strengthen the ability of opposition groups to organize protests. Paradoxically, by convincing opposition groups that they will still be able to pressure the government in the future, media reforms can persuade these groups not to protest when the ruler is weak. Yet this promise of continued leverage is not guaranteed. If the ruler manages to purge the government of rivals, the autocrat may be able to reverse the media freedoms and suppress the opposition.

I explored this theory through fieldwork in Tunisia, where I interviewed politicians, opposition leaders, and journalists who were active in the early Ben Ali years. I also draw on the historical literature on the Ben Ali years. And I assess the evolving range of political views represented in the Tunisian press through content analysis of newspapers before and during the first five years of Ben Ali’s rule.

My findings are consonant with the theory. Ben Ali was initially weak. Having risen through the ranks of the security apparatus, he was an outsider in a cabinet full of party apparatchiks and a ruling party in which he had few allies. And he faced opposition from both secular and Islamist parties, after a decade of protest and strikes. His initial liberalization of the press convinced opposition leaders that he intended to democratize Tunisia. Yet within a couple years, he had managed to consolidate tight personal control of the party and the government. He rigged the first elections he oversaw, and simultaneously, he rescinded the freedoms he had granted to the press. Having lined the regime up behind him, he had become strong enough to suppress the opposition. And thus freedom of the press had outworn its use to him.