Report by: Ellie Young and Oumayma Ben Abdallah
- Limited but growing footprint: Beijing’s media presence in Tunisia is currently small, and research into its scale is complicated by a lack of transparency. The Chinese embassy noticeably increased its public diplomacy and social media engagement during the coverage period of 2019-21. Following a July 2021 power grab by President Kaïs Saïed, in which he dismissed the prime minister and suspended the parliament in order to rule by decree, Tunisia’s broader media resilience has declined. The president’s moves isolated him from more democratic governments, raising the likelihood that Tunisia would seek closer ties to Beijing.
- Favorable views, but little change: According to one 2019 survey, a majority of Tunisians said they had favorable views of China and supported increasing economic relations and foreign aid. However, subsequent polling has shown that despite a ramped-up Chinese media engagement strategy in 2020 and 2021, public perceptions of China were unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic or the recent strengthening of bilateral economic ties.
- Increased diplomatic op-eds, media outreach: During the coverage period, Chinese diplomats promoted official narratives among Tunisian news consumers through at least 20 op-eds and interviews in prominent local print and broadcast news outlets, which were also featured on their social media. More broadly, the Chinese embassy has increased active outreach to individual journalists, media executives, and a local association of newspaper editors since 2019.
- Propaganda promoting aid and economic cooperation: Chinese state media and diplomatic actors have promoted China’s development model and supported deepening bilateral ties through the Belt and Road Initiative, which Tunisia joined in 2018. They have also leveraged Beijing’s donations of medical supplies and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic to present China as a sincere and generous partner in global public health efforts.
- Limited or distorted coverage of abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong: Amid a more general lack of reporting on China, likely due in part to low levels of local interest and knowledge, the Tunisian media sector has offered relatively limited coverage of rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Within this gap, Chinese diplomats have actively tried to shape media narratives on Beijing’s human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. During the coverage period, the embassy held press briefings and released detailed statements that featured proven falsehoods even as they sought to rebut so-called Western fallacies. Chinese diplomats also published op-eds that presented Chinese government policies in Xinjiang as legitimate antipoverty and counterterrorism measures, in an apparent attempt to appeal to Tunisia’s own struggles against extremism and inequality.
- Journalism exchanges and technology cooperation: Both Chinese and Tunisian media representatives have signaled their willingness to increase cooperation. In 2019, Chinese state media outlets signed an agreement to air content on Tunisian public television during what has become a regular “China Television Week,” with programming that presents a positive narrative on China’s development and Chinese culture. Tunisian journalists have reported taking part in media trainings through the framework of the Belt and Road News Network, and at least one prominent local journalist has worked for China Global Television Network, a state media outlet. Chinese actors have also shared technical equipment with public outlets in Tunisia.
- No disinformation campaigns: There were no documented cases of disinformation campaigns originating in China that specifically targeted local audiences in Tunisia during the coverage period.
- Small diaspora: The Chinese expatriate and diaspora population in Tunisia is small, probably numbering fewer than 1,000 people. There is no known diaspora media ecosystem, although individuals may rely on the Chinese social media platform WeChat or other such applications subject to Beijing’s domestic censorship regime to obtain news content.
- Media resilience supported by vibrant civil society and international resources: International organizations and Tunisia’s own vibrant civil society actively monitor press freedom in the country. Local journalists generally lack the capacity and expertise to conduct in-depth original reporting on topics related to China. Instead, media outlets including the national press agency use international news sources to supplement their work. Tunisian outlets also announced their cooperation with the regional Africa-China Reporting Project to share knowledge and best practices for reporting on China.
- Recent media vulnerabilities: Tunisia’s media landscape has been described as vulnerable and volatile amid the ongoing political crisis. Private media suffer from ownership concentration, are heavily politicized, and often operate in a legal gray zone. The presidential power grab in 2021 undermined legal protections for freedom of the press that had been established over the past decade, as the president began ruling by decree and cracked down on critical media including the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera and privately owned local outlets.
After a prodemocracy protest movement forced the ouster of a longtime autocrat in 2011, Tunisian citizens gained considerable political and personal freedoms. However, endemic corruption, economic challenges, security threats, and unresolved problems related to gender equality and transitional justice remain obstacles to full democratic consolidation. Tunisia received a status of Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.1 Its status was downgraded from Free after President Kaïs Saïed unilaterally dismissed and replaced the elected government, indefinitely suspended parliament, and imposed harsh restrictions on civil liberties to suppress opposition to his actions in July 2021.
Tunisia is categorized as Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2021, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on internet freedom.2 Despite recent crackdowns on the press and freedom of expression, Tunisians continue to use online tools and social media to mobilize, and a robust media ecosystem that developed after 2011 remains pluralistic and vibrant. Television and radio are the most popular sources of news, followed by online and social media.3 While Arabic is the official language of Tunisia and the main language for news consumption, French—which was widely adopted during the colonial period—remains a prestige language regularly used by professionals and elites.
Diplomatic relations between Tunisia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were established on January 10, 1964.4 Tunisia participates in the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), a dialogue mechanism between China and the Arab League that was established in 2004,5 and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). It joined the BRI in 2018 and became a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2019.6
Beijing maintained support for Tunisia in the wake of both the 2011 revolution and President Saïed’s power grab in 2021, in keeping with its official foreign policy principle of noninterference.7 The two countries deepened military cooperation in the 2010s in response to regional security threats.8 Sino-Tunisian cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and information and communication technology (ICT), including on cybersecurity and data governance matters, is relatively strong, due in part to Tunisia’s position as a comparatively stable and technologically advanced country in the Middle East and North Africa region. In 2017, the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei signed a Strategic Memorandum of Understanding of Tunisia Digital 2020 with Tunisia’s Ministry of Communication Technologies to bolster the country’s digital transformation,9 and China opened its first overseas Beidou Satellite Center in Tunis in 2018.10
Both sides have long expressed interest in deepening economic ties,11 but while China is Tunisia’s third-largest import partner, Chinese goods make up less than 10 percent of Tunisian imports. The European Union (EU) and the United States are more significant economic and military partners for Tunisia. Analysts have described the current Sino-Tunisian trade relationship as “negligible” even compared to Chinese bilateral relations with other North African countries.12 Chinese foreign investment in Tunisia is low, and past projects have often faced setbacks.13 Nevertheless, China has funded a variety of prestige construction projects, including a hospital in Sfax that was completed in December 2020; port upgrades and a railway project in Zarzis; and a diplomatic academy that was finished in 2022. In January 2019, Beijing and Tunis signed an agreement to increase international development cooperation.14 The two sides have also discussed creating a free trade zone in Zarzis, although little progress has been made since a strategic framework was signed in 2015.15 In addition, Chinese officials have signaled that the Tunisian tourism, agriculture, health care, renewable energy, and automotive sectors are strategic priorities for investment.16
The Chinese expatriate and diaspora population in Tunisia is estimated to number less than 1,000.17 Based on Chinese embassy reports, any expatriates likely work for Chinese companies with a presence in the country or support the Confucius Institute at the University of Carthage and regular medical missions to the Sfax hospital.18
- 1Freedom House, “Tunisia,” in Freedom in the World 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-world/2022.
- 2Freedom House, “Tunisia,” in Freedom on the Net 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-net/2021.
- 3“Media consumption in Tunisia,” Media Ownership Monitor: Tunisia, Al Khatt, accessed June 1, 2022, http://tunisia.mom-gmr.org/en/context/media-consumption/. Note that Tunisia has a significant illiteracy rate—estimated to be around 19.1 percent in 2018. Partly for this reason, television and radio are dominant news sources, especially in rural areas. See: Ahmed Nadhif, “What is behind Tunisia’s rising illiteracy?” Al-Monitor, October 17, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2018/10/what-is-behind-rising-illi….
- 4“Bilateral relations between Tunisia and China,” Asia Direction, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Tunisia, April 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gov.tn/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Bilateral_relat….
- 5“The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF),” BRICS Policy Center, updated May 2016, accessed June 1, 2022, https://www.bricspolicycenter.org/en/forum-de-cooperacao-china-paises-a….
- 6Lamine Ghanmi, “Tunisia joins China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it seeks to diversify trade, investment,” The Arab Weekly, September 9, 2018, https://thearabweekly.com/tunisia-joins-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative…; “AIIB Approves Membership of Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Tunisia, and Uruguay,” Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, April 22, 2019, https://www.aiib.org/en/news-events/news/2019/AIIB-Approves-Membership-….
- 7“驻突尼斯大使张建国接受《新闻报》专访” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo receives interview in La Presse], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, June 21, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202106/t20210622_9089254.htm, (https://archive.ph/DdeVb).
- 8The US and France provide much more military aid and have long-standing security ties with Tunisia. See: Yahia H. Zoubir, “Chapter 4: Tunisia and China: An Evolution of Relations” in Expanding Sino-Maghreb Relations, Chatham House, February 26, 2020, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/02/expanding-sino-maghreb-relations/4….
- 9“Huawei helps Tunisia promote industry’s digitalization development,” Huawei, July 31, 2018, https://www.huawei.com/en/news/2018/7/huawei-tunisia-digitalization-dev….
- 10The Beidou navigation system is China’s equivalent to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLOSNASS, or the European Union’s Galileo system. It became fully operational in 2020. See: Space in Africa, “Why BeiDou Navigation Satellite System Centre in Tunisia is the gateway for China/Arab space cooperation,” Space in Africa, April 30, 2019, https://africanews.space/why-beidou-navigation-satellite-system-centre-….
- 11For example, in 2017 the former Tunisian ambassador to China argued that signing on to the BRI could help revitalize Tunisia’s economy after six years of recession. See: Xinhua, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative to help Tunisian economy revive from slowdown: former envoy,” State Council Information Office, September 4, 2017, http://english.scio.gov.cn/2017-09/04/content_41527437.htm (https://archive.ph/iPi1S).
- 12In 2022, total trade between China and Tunisia was valued at $2.1 billion, with imports from China accounting for $1.8 billion. See: “China Customs Statistics,” HKTDC Research, updated May 23, 2022, accessed June 1, 2022, https://research.hktdc.com/en/data-and-profiles/china-customs-statistics. Compare this with trade with the European Union (EU), Tunisia’s largest trading partner, which was valued at $18.2 billion in 2020. See: “EU trade relations with Tunisia. Facts, figures and latest developments.” European Commission, accessed June 1, 2022, https://policy.trade.ec.europa.eu/eu-trade-relationships-country-and-re…. See also: Mordechai Chaziza, “China’s Friendly Cooperative Relations with Tunisia in the Age of the New Silk Road Initiative,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 23, Issue 2, January 18, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/19448953.2021.1872013.
- 13“Bilateral relations between Tunisia and China,” Asia Direction, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Tunisia, April 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gov.tn/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Bilateral_relat…; Intissar Fakir, Aesha Soliman, “Across the Maghreb, support for all outside actors, including China and Russia, remains low,” Middle East Institute, September 30, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/across-maghreb-support-all-outside-act…. According to one analyst, a decline in investment from Persian Gulf countries due to collapsing oil prices could open the door to more investment from China in the long term. See: Sarah Yerkes, “Tunisia: Gulf’s Loss Could be China’s Gain,” in As Gulf Donors Shift Priorities, Arab States Search For Aid, ed. Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 9, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/06/09/tunisia-gulf-s-loss-could-be-c….
- 14“国家国际发展合作署署长王晓涛率团访问突尼斯” [Director of China International Development Cooperation Agency Wang Xiaotao led a delegation to visit Tunisia], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, January 24, 2019, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/201901/t20190130_6839068.htm (https://archive.ph/44m9y ). Since passing an updated investment law in 2016, Tunisia has actively sought to increase the level of foreign direct investment in the country. Compared with that of the EU or the US, Chinese investment in Tunisia remains low—a 2018 Tunisian government report said that Chinese investment in the country was less than $5 million. See: “Bilateral relations between Tunisia and China,” Asia Direction, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Tunisia, April 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gov.tn/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Bilateral_relat….
- 15Mordechai Chaziza, “China’s Friendly Cooperative Relations with Tunisia in the Age of the New Silk Road Initiative,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 23, Issue 2, January 18, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/19448953.2021.1872013.
- 16Yahia H. Zoubir, “Chapter 4: Tunisia and China: An Evolution of Relations” in Expanding Sino-Maghreb Relations, Chatham House, February 26, 2020, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/02/expanding-sino-maghreb-relations/4….
- 17“2020 突尼斯华人社会扫描” [2020 Tunisia Overseas Chinese Society Scan], Oriental Post (非洲华侨周报), September 24, 2020, https://www.qiaowang.org/m/view.php?aid=13813 (https://archive.ph/FLRg8).
- 18“驻突尼斯大使馆举行国庆72周年中资机构与华侨华人线上招待会” [The Chinese embassy in Tunisia held a virtual reception with Chinese-funded institutions and overseas Chinese to celebrate the 72nd National Day], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, September 28, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202109/t20210929_9593271.htm (https://archive.ph/Y5mGE).
Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives
Chinese diplomatic actors often state that Sino-Tunisian relations are based on three principles: mutual respect, win-win cooperation, and people-to-people ties. They cite the two countries’ shared histories as ancient civilizations, postcolonial nations, and developing economies as grounds for mutual support and engagement.1 They also emphasize the two sides’ need to stand together against “interference in other countries’ internal affairs in the name of human rights” and to maintain support for each other’s “core concerns and major interests.”2
Embassy communications regularly focused on China’s health diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic as a reflection of strong bilateral ties, noting early medical aid sent to Tunisia by the Chinese central government, military, businesses, and provincial governments as well as China’s role as Tunisia’s first foreign supplier of coronavirus vaccines.3 The Chinese-built hospital in Sfax, completed in late 2020, was particularly referenced during the coverage period as evidence of the two countries’ strong health cooperation,4 alongside Chinese medical missions to Tunisia that predated COVID-19 but continued throughout the pandemic.5 In one signed article published in the local outlet La Presse, the Chinese ambassador praised Tunisia’s “successful demonstration of fighting the epidemic” amid local outbreaks and thanked Tunisians for their support to China during the early months of the pandemic.6 Another piece highlighted Beijing’s role as a leader for health care cooperation among developing countries while also hitting back at “some countries’” efforts to “smear” China by politicizing the origins of the virus.7
In general, Chinese state media and diplomats emphasized positive developments in trade and people-to-people relations. Embassy officials lauded the close military and security ties between Tunisia and China,8 and pointed to the potential for a further elevation of bilateral relations in areas including telecommunications, tourism, renewable energy, and people-to-people connections under the umbrella of the BRI and broader regional cooperation.9 They were also proactive in disseminating Beijing’s preferred narratives on topics such as the Chinese regime’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong and efforts to discredit evidence of mass detentions and other atrocities by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, legitimizing those actions by citing policy concerns that paralleled Tunisia’s own counterterrorism and development challenges.10
For example, in late 2019, the Chinese embassy held a press conference at which ambassador Wang Wenbin argued that the Muslim population in Xinjiang benefited from free education, increased life expectancy, and economic and social development support from the central government. He justified the mass detention of Uyghurs as part of the government’s antiterrorism efforts, comparing Beijing’s repressive policies to those adopted in the United States and other democracies and referring to their criticisms as a “double standard” designed to provoke “chaos in Xinjiang, similar to what is happening in Libya and Syria.” 11 These conflicts served as a point of regional reference for Tunisians.
Key avenues of content dissemination
Embassy communications and media outreach: The Chinese embassy in Tunisia significantly increased its traditional media engagements during this report’s coverage period, with ambassadors publishing at least 20 op-eds between 2019 and 2021 and regularly speaking to the press. While 18 of these articles were written in French, which is spoken by an elite minority in Tunisia, both Wang and his successor as ambassador, Zhang Jianguo, also gave interviews in French and (translated) Arabic to television, radio, and print media outlets.12
Diplomatic content appeared most frequently in state-owned news outlets such as the mainstream daily newspaper La Presse de Tunisie, its Arabic counterpart Essahafa, and public television and radio broadcasters.13 The embassy also maintained warm relations with and sometimes published materials in various other print and online outlets including Babnet, Kapitalis, Leaders, Business News, Réalités, Le Temps, and L’Economiste Magrhebin, as well as popular independent radio and television channels such as Express FM, Radio Jawal, and Nessma TV.14 Such content was sometimes shared by the outlets with their own larger social media followings, although it appeared to receive little engagement from Tunisian users.15
The ambassador met regularly with media executives and leaders such as Taïeb Zahar, publisher of Réalités magazine and president of the Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors (FTDJ).16 Notably, in June 2021 Ambassador Zhang met with the head of the state-owned La Presse, the president of the privately owned Leaders magazine, and the head of the influential Tunisian Council for International Relations (TCIR) to discuss media strategy for commemorating the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) centennial.17
The embassy has a verified Facebook page, created in February 2019, with a follower count of 26,000 as of February 2022, although its activity and user engagement are low.18 The embassy page follows two other accounts: those of the Tunisian president and the current Chinese ambassador, the latter of which was created in December 2020 and had 874 followers as of February 2022. The embassy page’s feed mostly consists of embassy updates or reposts of items from Chinese state media related to tourism, culture, and foreign policy, as well as the occasional post on Xi Jinping Thought—a set of official PRC policies and ideas derived from the words of the CCP leader. Most posts do not receive much engagement, with the exception of one related to vaccine aid from China.19
Piecemeal efforts at media localization: The official news agency Xinhua and China Radio International (CRI) both publish content online in French and Arabic that is available to news consumers in Tunisia, though precise Tunisian audience estimates are not available. Xinhua maintains a branch office in Tunis, but much of the content it produces appears to be aimed at Chinese or general audiences.20 Representatives from Xinhua met with the head of the Tunisian parliament and the editor in chief of the state-owned news agency Tunis Afrique Press (TAP) in 2017.21 It remains unclear what, if any, substantive media cooperation agreements emerged from these meetings. Freedom House research found examples of Xinhua using TAP content during the coverage period, although it did not find instances of TAP carrying Xinhua content.
Chinese state media entities have also worked to produce localized video content for Tunisian audiences. CGTN Arabic is available via satellite television packages and accessible online in Arabic and French.22 Both CGTN Arabic and CGTN Africa employ local correspondents, including one relatively well-known local journalist, Adnen Chaouachi, who previously worked for Tunisian state media.23 Tunisian national television sometimes broadcasts translated content from China Central Television (CCTV),24 but details of the content-sharing arrangement between the two state broadcasters are unavailable.
Overall, public interest in news content from Chinese state media seems limited. Documentaries promoting tourism in China that were coproduced by Tunisian national television and published on the YouTube channel of its Wataniya 1 station (2.2 million followers) in 2017 and 2019 had fewer than 2,000 views.25 Film and entertainment products may draw more interest from Tunisian audiences. In June 2019, CGTN Arabic and the China International Television Corporation (CITC) sent representatives to participate in the 20th Arab Festival for Radio and Television, organized by the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU).26 CGTN and CITC also cooperated with Tunisian national television to broadcast programming that promoted Chinese dramas in translation, and the two sides have indicated interest in deepening cooperation in the future (see below).27
Press cooperation through multilateral frameworks, including subsidized trips: Beijing has highlighted media cooperation as a priority in the bilateral relationship. Accordingly, Chinese state media outlets participate in regional media cooperation efforts through the ASBU, which includes representatives of state media entities from across the Arab League.28 In April 2021, the Chinese ambassador gave a keynote speech at the 23rd International Forum hosted by Réalités magazine, where he discussed the need to deepen cooperation through the BRI to “push China-Tunisia relations to a higher level.”29 One day later, the ambassador met with Mohamed Lassad Daahech, CEO of the Tunisian Television Establishment (ETT) , who thanked the embassy for a recent donation of split LCD screens and indicated his willingness to strengthen cooperation with the Chinese embassy and the China Media Group “so that more Tunisians can understand China and promote the bond between the two peoples.”30
Tunisian journalists who took part in a roundtable event organized by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported a noticeable uptick in Chinese media outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic, including equipment donations; offers to provide pandemic prevention equipment to one journalists’ union, which were refused; and discreet offers of financial aid to certain private media outlets. The embassy reportedly pivoted to engaging with organizations “specializing in the media sector” after learning that it was difficult for Tunisian media outlets to accept foreign funding.31 Despite these increased efforts, the panelists concluded that “China has no concrete impact on the journalist content in Tunisia.”32
Tunisian journalists were given opportunities to travel to China through the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), a mechanism for media cooperation that was officially launched in April 2019 and chaired by People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP.33 In October 2019, journalists from 19 countries, including participants from at least two Tunisian outlets, attended a two-week BRNN media workshop that featured travel to various tourism destinations around China; the goal was to learn about development topics such as “ecological management, economic and cultural construction, and industrial technology.”34 The trip was sponsored by the PRC State Council Information Office (SCIO) and cohosted by the foreign cooperation department of People’s Daily and the Communication University of China, with the intention to “create a good atmosphere of public opinion for the joint construction of the Belt and Road.”35
Chinese film exhibition week: After a high-level Chinese media delegation visited Tunisian public broadcasters in 2019, it was agreed that two state-owned Tunisian television channels, Wataniya 1 and Wataniya 2, would broadcast translated Chinese films and documentaries from June 29 to July 5 during an event called “China Television Week.” Jointly organized by the SCIO, the National Radio and Television Administration of China, and Tunisian state television, the weeklong film festival was intended to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Then ambassador Wang Wenbin noted that “exchanges between the two sides in cinema and television played a positive role in building bridges between the people from both sides and promoting mutual understanding.” Films such as One Belt and One Road, a documentary coproduced by the Chinese embassy in Tunisia that featured “the friendship story between China and Tunisia,” used a popular entertainment format to present a Beijing-friendly narrative on Chinese civilization and Sino-Tunisian relations.36 According to a news report by CGTN Africa, “over 10 million Tunisians will discover Chinese TV productions” as a result of the cooperation.37
There were no documented disinformation campaigns involving inauthentic accounts that specifically targeted and reached news consumers in Tunisia during the report’s 2019–21 coverage period. For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms.
However, Chinese state media and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing have promoted conspiracy theories and false information for global consumption in order to obfuscate or distract from controversial topics such as the lack of democracy in China and the state’s oppression of religious and ethnic minority groups. These general narratives have been amplified by Chinese diplomats in Tunisia, as in other countries. For example, in July 2020, the charge d’affaires Yuan Lijie published a signed article in La Presse that purported to refute “false remarks” by Western media regarding the Hong Kong national security law.38 The Chinese embassy shared images on Facebook of a document titled “China: Xinjiang, land of miracles, peace and prosperity” which claimed that “Xinjiang created a strategy that corresponds to its local extremist problem in which it respects human rights.”39 In July 2020, the embassy released a lengthy statement including 37 clarifications on “various fallacies and facts about China-related human rights issues” that presented multiple false claims and engaged in whataboutism to deflect criticism and attempt to justify Beijing’s positions.40
Censorship and intimidation
During the coverage period, there were no documented incidents of pressure or threats from the Chinese government toward Tunisian journalists with the aim of censoring their reporting, and no Tunisian news outlets are blocked in China. In general, Tunisian media reporting on China is limited. Notably, the Uyghur issue is relatively absent from mainstream news coverage and commentary, although a majority of Tunisia’s population is Muslim and such content would be expected to be of local interest. Although ongoing domestic factors challenging Tunisian media have led to increasing reports of self-censorship in news outlets (see Vulnerabilities), the coverage gap on China-related topics including the Uyghur issue likely results from a combination of factors including lack of audience interest, lack of journalistic expertise, a greater focus on domestic news (especially amid the ongoing political crisis), and a sense among both audiences and media workers that China is geographically and culturally distant and thus less relevant to daily life in Tunisia.41
Control over content-distribution infrastructure
China-based companies do not have a presence in Tunisia’s digital or satellite television infrastructure, but other Chinese firms with ties to the CCP have been gaining ground in the social media and mobile phone sectors, creating potential vulnerability to future manipulation. Huawei, a PRC-based company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, has been active in Tunisia since 1999 and plays a significant role in the country’s existing telecoms infrastructure. It supplies equipment to the two largest service providers, Ooredoo Tunisie and Tunisie Telecom, to support the transition to fifth generation (5G) wireless networks.42 Chinese companies—led by Huawei but also including Xiaomi, Oppo, and Infinix—accounted for more than 40 percent of the mobile phone market during the coverage period.43
Huawei participated in Tunisia’s national effort to transition to a digital economy, called Digital Tunisia 2020,44 including through a Health City project in Kairouan and expanded partnerships to provide updated media equipment to educational institutions.45 As part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities in the country, Huawei has launched local education and training initiatives such as an ICT training academy and its “Seeds for the Future” program. In November 2021, the company signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation with the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education.46 Huawei has also reportedly signed commercial and marketing agreements with private media outlets in Tunisia to promote its products and services. According to analysis by the IFJ, Chinese actors may be turning to institutional partnerships with government agencies focused on promoting foreign investment and higher education in order to increase their influence after enjoying less success when partnering with local media outlets.47
The short-video platform TikTok, owned by the Beijing-headquartered company ByteDance, was one of the 15 most downloaded applications in the Google Play store in Tunisia as of early 2022, and it is used by local media outlets to reach news consumers.48 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.49 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.50 There were no reports of censorship on TikTok in Tunisia. More generally, there was no evidence of CCP-linked controls over content-distribution infrastructure being used to amplify pro-Beijing content or marginalize critical content in Tunisia during this report’s coverage period.
Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models
During the coverage period, media professionals in Tunisia did not report receiving trainings aimed at disseminating CCP information-control norms or tactics or being otherwise influenced to adopt Beijing-style media governance models. However, the Chinese embassy has discussed deepening its relationships with the state news agency TAP and a local association of newspaper editors in order to “actively spread positive energy and enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples.”51 This terminology is a reference to Beijing’s model of so-called constructive journalism, which is meant to promote positive and uncritical news coverage.
As a member state of the Arab League, Tunisia participates in the China-Arab Data Security Cooperation Initiative, which promotes CCP views on cyber sovereignty and data security that could undermine a free and open global internet. The initiative aims to strengthen the strategic alignment between China and Arab states by enhancing practical cooperation in cyberspace, with a focus on the process by which “developing countries such as China and Arab countries are changing from passive recipients of international rules to active makers of international rules and active participants in global governance.”52
Chinese diaspora media
The Chinese expatriate and diaspora population in Tunisia is small, numbering less than 1,000 according to one estimate published by the news outlet Oriental Post, which serves Chinese speakers in Africa.53 There are no significant Chinese-language media in Tunisia due to the small size of the community, although some local Chinese entities such as the embassy and the Confucius Institute at the University of Carthage post news content to their official accounts on WeChat, which must be registered in China and are thus subject to Chinese censorship restrictions. The embassy coordinates with the Tunisian Overseas Chinese Association (突尼斯华人华侨协会) and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia (突尼斯华商会), which are both led by the same individual, to promote bilateral people-to-people ties.54
- 1See examples: “驻突尼斯大使汪文斌接受《新闻报》专访” [Chinese Ambassador to Tunisia Wang Wenbin interviewed by ‘Actualités’], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, September 26, 2019, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/201909/t20190926_6839439.htm (https://archive.ph/ATFBt); “驻突尼斯大使汪文斌接受《新闻报》专访” [Chinese Ambassador to Tunisia Wang Wenbin interviewed by ‘Actualités’], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, April 22, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202004/t20200422_6839979.htm (https://archive.ph/nmunH).
- 2“驻突尼斯大使张建国接受《新闻报》专访” [Chinese Ambassador to Tunisia Wang Wenbin Interviewed by ‘Actualités’], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, June 21, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202106/t20210622_9089254.htm (https://archive.ph/KTxVP).
- 3For example, see: “张建国大使在突尼斯《新闻报》发表署名文章” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo publishes a signed article in La Presse], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, March 25, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202103/t20210325_9088973.htm (https://archive.ph/uU8dY).
- 4Xinhua, “Tunisian president inaugurates new hospital built with Chinese aid,” China Daily, December 11, 2020, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202012/11/WS5fd2c88ea31024ad0ba9b320.ht… (https://archive.ph/48vnJ).
- 5Xinhua, “Tunisia gives award to Chinese medical mission,” Xinhua, December 8, 2021, http://www.news.cn/english/2021-12/08/c_1310357471.htm (https://archive.ph/oP0Iw).
- 6“汪文斌大使在突尼斯主流媒体《新闻报》上发表署名文章” [Ambassador Wang Wenbin publishes a signed article in Tunisian mainstream media La Presse], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, May 22, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202005/t20200526_6839999.htm (https://archive.ph/bePXG).
- 7“汪文斌大使发表题为《我们是命运共同体》的署名文章” [Ambassador Wang Wenbin published a signed article ‘We are a Community with a Common Destiny’], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, May 27, 2022, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202005/t20200527_6840022.htm (https://archive.ph/sFl47).
- 8“张建国大使在突尼斯《新闻报》发表署名文章—《携手同心，推动中突两国两军关系迈上新台阶》” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo published a signed article in La Presse—‘Join Hands to Push the Relations Between the Two Countries and Two Armies of China and Tunisia to A New Level’], Chinese Embasssy in Tunisia, July 31, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202107/t20210731_9089365.htm (https://archive.ph/Apb1X).
- 9“驻突尼斯大使张建国接受《新闻报》专访” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo receives an interview from La Presse], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, January 8, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202101/t20210108_6840520.htm (https://archive.ph/uIUDp).
- 10See examples: “汪文斌大使发表题为《维护香港国家安全立法必要且合法》署名文章” [Chinese Ambassador Wang Wenbin publishes a signed article titled ‘Legislation to Safeguard Hong Kong’s National Security Is Necessary and Legal’], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, May 27, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202005/t20200528_6840018.htm(ar…; “驻突尼斯大使汪文斌接受《时报》专访” [Chinese Ambassador to Tunisia Wang Wenbin interviewed in Le Temps], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, December 13, 2019, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/201912/t20191213_6839620.htm (https://archive.ph/LZbt7).
- 11Ambassade de Chine en Tunisie (Embassy of China in Tunisia), “Selon M. l’Ambassadeur, certains pays occidentaux critiques à l’égard des mesures adoptées par les autorités locales de Xinjiang dans la lutte anti-terroriste” [According to the Ambassador, some Western countries are critical of the measures adopted by local authorities in Xinjiang in the fight against terrorism], Facebook, December 30, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=763473340799779&set=a.548465618967….
- 12According to press releases from the website of the Chinese embassy in Tunisia, embassy officials published at least four signed articles in 2019 (two of which discussed the necessity of maintaining stability and prosperity in Hong Kong) and eight signed articles in each year in 2020 and 2021. Freedom House analysis. “Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Tunisia,” accessed August 31, 2022, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn (https://archive.ph/TI1qX).
- 13Freedom House found that 9 out of 20 signed articles or written interviews with a Chinese diplomatic official were published by the state-owned La Presse between 2019 and 2021, representing more than twice as many as the number of pieces published by the second and third most common print sources that featured content from Chinese diplomatic officials (the weekly magazine Réalités and the daily paper Le Temps).
- 14For example, in September 2021 a video statement commemorating the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was rebroadcast by a variety of public and private media entities. See: “张建国大使在突尼斯主流媒体发表庆祝中华人民共和国成立72周年视频致辞” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo delivered a video speech celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in mainstream media in Tunisia], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, September 28, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202109/t20210929_9593272.htm (https://archive.ph/hOW1r).
- 15See examples:, “L’établissement et le perfectionnement du système juridique et du mécanisme d’application en matière de la préservation de la sécurité nationale dans la Région administrative spéciale (RAS) de #Hong_Kong est une mesure qui s’impose vu la situation dans cette région.” [The establishment and improvement of the legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in the #Hong_Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) is a necessary measure given the situation in this region], @KapitalisInfo, Facebook, May 27, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/KapitalisInfo/posts/3230251587007157/; “Zhang Jianguo: Les investisseurs chinois sont absents du marché tunisien à cause de sa taille et de loi d’investissement,” [Zhang Jianguo: Chinese investors are absent from the Tunisian market because of its size and the investment law], @RadioExpressFm, Facebook, March 22, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/154081004603253/posts/4251459588198687/.
- 16See: embassy readouts from meetings on March 6, 2020: “汪文斌大使会见突报业经理人协会主席扎哈尔” [Ambassador Wang Wenbin meets with Zahar, president of the Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, March 6, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202003/t20200308_6839844.htm (https://archive.ph/qiIUC); December 10, 2021: “张建国大使会见突尼斯报业经理人协会主席扎哈尔” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with Zahar, president of the Tunisian Federation of Newspaper Directors], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, December 10, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202112/t20211211_10466836.htm (https://archive.ph/czwW1); and May 10, 2022: “张建国大使会见突尼斯《现实周刊》社长扎哈尔” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with Zahar, president of Réalités], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, May 10, 2022, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202205/t20220511_10684158.htm (https://archive.ph/8jAuX).
- 17See: “张建国大使会见突尼斯主流媒体《新闻报》社长及主编” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with the president and editor-in-chief of Tunisian mainstream media La Presse], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, June 30, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202107/t20210701_9089278.htm (https://archive.ph/pJ6Co); “张建国大使会见突尼斯知名独立媒体《领导者》杂志社社长及智库代表” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with the president of the well-known independent magazine Leaders and thinktank representatives], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, June 8, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202106/t20210609_9089206.htm (https://archive.ph/VkF1y).
- 18“Ambassade de Chine en Tunisie” [Embassy of China in Tunisia], Facebook, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/AmbassadedeChineenTunisie/.
- 19The post garnered 535 likes, 90 comments, and 130 shares, which is uncommon. “Afin de soutenir la Tunisie dans sa lutte contre l’épidémie de coronavirus, le gouvernement chinois a décidé de fournir à la Tunisie un autre lot de don composé de” [In order to support Tunisia in its fight against the coronavirus epidemic, the Chinese government has decided to provide Tunisia with another batch of donations consisting of], Ambassade de Chine en Tunisie سفارة الصين بتونس [Chinese Embassy in Tunisia], Facebook, May 14, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=862985344181911&set=le-29-juin-202…-
- 20A Facebook page for “Xinhua—Bureau de Tunis” had only 600 followers as of June 2021 and has not been updated since 2017. “XINHUA – Bureau de Tunis,” Facebook, accessed June 1, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/wajih19111981/. Huang Ling (黄灵) is described on the Xinhua Silk Road website as the chief correspondent of Xinhua News Agency’s Tunisia branch. “突尼斯 突尼斯分社 ● 专栏” [Tunis Tunisia Branch - column], Xinhua Silk Road, accessed June 1, 2022, https://www.imsilkroad.com/news/consultdetails/Tunisia.
- 21“وسائل الإعلام التونسية تتطلع لتعميق التعاون مع وكالة أنباء شينخوا” [Tunisian media looks forward to deepening cooperation with Xinhua], Arabic.news.cn, June 21, 2017, http://arabic.news.cn/2017-06/21/c_136381799.htm (https://archive.ph/xfuSN).
- 22Zakaria Mounir, “إضبط تردد قناة CGTN- سي جي تي ان العربية” [Set the frequency of the CGTN Arabic channel], klma.org, June 18, 2021, https://www.klma.org/egypt-news/ رموز-تردد-قناة-cgtn-العربية-المجانية-على-ق.
- 23Adnen Chaouachi, YouTube, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNVajOl4TNSUt2pf9kno8BQ.
- 24“New vaccines created by Chinese scientists are more effective against Delta and Omicron,” Télévision tunisienne, Facebook, April 7, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=680748799691091.
- 25While the verified “Watania Replay” channel had 2.2 million subscribers as of the time of writing, the 2017 documentary “China through Tunisian eyes” had fewer than 2,000 views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZyfkvoaTd0), and the 2019 “Road to heaven” had 1,200 views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jn9Vc-JaA4I).
- 26Xinhua, “China enhances cultural identity in Tunisia, Arab World,” Global Times, June 30, 2019, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1156275.shtml (https://archive.ph/r2jLG).
- 27“电视剧《美好生活》观众见面会在突尼斯举办 中国影视作品走红阿拉伯国家荧屏” [Television series ‘Beautiful Life’ audience meeting was held in Tunisia, Chinese film products became popular on the screens of Arabic countries], Sohu.com, June 30, 2019, https://www.sohu.com/a/323889878_641618; http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202107/t20210701_9089278.htm (https://archive.ph/pJ6Co).
- 28Radio Tunisienne and Television Tunisienne are active members of the ASBU. “Members,” Arab States Broadcasting Union, accessed August 31, 2022, https://www.asbu.net/en/34/members.
- 29“张建国大使出席突尼斯第23届《现实周刊》国际研讨会并发表演讲” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo attended the 23rd international forum of Réalités and delivered a speech], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, April 1, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202104/t20210402_9088997.htm (https://archive.ph/vYjds).
- 30“张建国大使会见突尼斯国家电视台台长达赫什” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with Tunisian national television head Daahech], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, April 2, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202104/t20210402_9089016.htm (https://archive.ph/YA8Rg).
- 31Louisa Lim, Julia Bergin, and Johan Lidberg, “The Covid-19 Story: Unmasking China’s Global Strategy,” International Federation of Journalists, June 3, 2021, https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/reports/detail/the-covid-19-story-unma…, p.6.
- 32“The Covid-19 Story: Unmasking China’s Global Strategy,” International Federation of Journalists, June 3, 2021, https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/reports/detail/the-covid-19-story-unma…, p.6.
- 33Eleanor Albert, “What is the Belt and Road News Network?” The Diplomat, October 2, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/what-is-the-belt-and-road-news-network/.
- 34“第二期一带一路新闻合作联盟短期访学班圆满结业” [The second short-term visiting class of the Belt and Road News Network successfully completed], State Council Information Office, November 4, 2019, http://www.scio.gov.cn/m/31773/35507/35514/35522/Document/1667595/16675… (https://archive.ph/VbEGL); “’感受城市与自然的和谐发展’（一带一路中外媒体采访调研行）” [‘Feeling the harmonious development between cities and nature’ (Belt and Road Chinese and foreign media interview and research trip)], People’s Daily, October 28, 2019, https://wap.peopleapp.com/article/4736652/4621853 (https://archive.ph/NAixy); see also: “BRNN journalists from Arab nations visit Lanzhou,” Globaltimes.cn, October 29, 2019, https://www.globaltimes.cn/galleries/3044.html (https://archive.ph/AsUgw).
- 35“’一带一路’新闻合作联盟海外媒体访学班走进金城” [Overseas media visiting class from the Belt and Road News Network enters Jincheng], Lanzhou Daily, October 28, 2019, http://www.wenlvnews.com/p/199452.html (https://archive.ph/FGdjZ).
- 36“China enhances cultural identity in Tunisia, Arab world,” Silk Road Futures, June 30, 2019, https://www.silkroadfutures.net/building-cultural-connectivities/china-…; see also: “突尼斯“中国电影展播周”正式启动” [Tunisia “Chinese Television Week” officially launched], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, April 19, 2019, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/201904/t20190419_6839274.htm (https://archive.ph/wpv5r).
- 37“Two public Tunisian broadcasters set to air Chinese content,” CGTN Africa, YouTube, July 2, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TD8o1sPgck.
- 38“袁丽洁临时代办就香港国家安全法发表文章” [Chargé d’Affaires Yuan Lijie publishes an article on the Hong Kong National Security Law],Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, July 20, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202007/t20200721_6840189.htm (https://archive.ph/gBlEj).
- 39“Ambassade de Chine en Tunisie” [Embassy of China in Tunisia], Facebook, December 26, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=760185754461871&set=pb.10006893902….
- 40For example, the statement included the assertion that “the formulation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong fully reflects the common will of all Chinese people, including Hong Kong compatriots,” and, in response to allegations that Chinese authorities had retaliated against journalists and medical workers for exercising their right to free speech during the pandemic, the assertion that “in China, it is impossible for anyone to be punished just for speaking out.” The statement also alleged that the “vocational skills education and training centers” in which Chinese authorities have detained more than one million Uyghurs are “essentially the same as ‘community correction [centers]’ established in the United States, the DDP [Desistance and Disengagement Programme] project in the United Kingdom, or deradicalization centers in France.” See: “关于涉华人权问题的各种谬论及事实真相” [Various facts and fallacies regarding Chinese human rights issues], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, July 3, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202007/t20200703_6840119.htm (https://archive.ph/myAD7).
- 41Interviews with Sarah Yerkes, February 11, 2022, and Mohamed Naceur Mouelhi, February 25, 2022.
- 42Orange Tunisie, the country’s third major telecoms provider, which is headquartered in France, has declared that it will be using 5G equipment from Ericsson and Nokia. “Would Tunisia Succeed in 2021 5G Rollout?” Operator Watch, September 7, 2020, https://www.operatorwatch.com/2020/09/would-tunisia-succeed-in-2021-5g-…. Note that Tunisia has moved forward on 5G cooperation with Huawei largely without any public debate, despite criticism from the United States. See: Donald Blome, “Smart 5G Decisions Today Can Preserve the Security and Privacy of All Tunisians,” U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, December 24, 2020, https://tn.usembassy.gov/smart-5g-decisions-today-can-preserve-the-secu….
- 43“Mobile Vendor Market Share Tunisia: Jan 2019 – Dec 2021,” GlobalStats, accessed June 1, 2022, https://gs.statcounter.com/vendor-market-share/mobile/tunisia/#monthly-….
- 44“Huawei helps Tunisia promote industry’s digitalization development,” Huawei, July 31, 2018, https://www.huawei.com/en/news/2018/7/huawei-tunisia-digitalization-dev….
- 45“Tunisian president lauds Chinese companies’ contribution to Tunisia’s digital economy,” Xinhua, August 20, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-08/20/c_1310137508.htm (https://archive.ph/huZkd).
- 46“张建国大使出席华为突尼斯“未来种子”计划结业式” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo attends the closing ceremony of Huawei Tunisia ‘Seeds for the Future’ project], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, November 15, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202111/t20211116_10448662.htm (https://archive.ph/jy5pF).
- 47“Journalists and the China story: Tunisia,” International Federation of Journalists, July 7, 2021, https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/category/china-the-fight-f….
- 48“Ranking des meilleures applis” [Ranking of the best apps], SimilarWeb, accessed February 16, 2022, https://www.similarweb.com/fr/apps/top/apple/store-rank/tn/all/top-free…. Popular media outlets including Mozaique FM (@mosaiquefm), Nessma TV (@nessmatv), Attesia TV (@attessiatv9), Elhiwar Ettounsi TV (@elhiwarettounsi2), and Shems Radio (@radioshemsfm) have TikTok accounts.
- 49Isobel Asher Hamilton, “A Senior TikTok Executive Admitted the Company Used to Censor Content Critical of China, ‘Specifically with Regard to the Uighur Situation’,” Business Insider, November 5, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-censor-china-critical-content-ui….
- 50Emily Baker-White, “Leaked Audio From 80 Internal TikTok Meetings Shows That US User Data Has Been Repeatedly Accessed From China,” Buzzfeed, June 17, 2022, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emilybakerwhite/tiktok-tapes-us-us….
- 51“张建国大使会见突尼斯非洲通讯社社长穆娜” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with Tunisia Afrique Press Agency Director Mouna Mtibaa], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, December 29, 2020, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202012/t20201230_6840470.htm (https://archive.ph/CMct8). For a summary of Zhang’s meeting with the head of the Tunisian Association of Newspaper Editors (FTDJ), see: “张建国大使会见突尼斯报业经理人协会主席扎哈尔” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo meets with FTJD chairman Zahar], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, December 10, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202112/t20211211_10466836.htm (https://archive.ph/czwW1).
- 52“张建国大使应邀出席阿拉伯网络安全论坛并发表演讲” [Ambassador Zhang Jianguo attended the Arab Cybersecurity Forum and gave a speech], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, October 21, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202110/t20211025_9982519.htm (https://archive.ph/7sAGe).
- 53“2020 突尼斯华人社会扫描” [2020 Tunisia Overseas Chinese Society Scan], Oriental Post (非洲华侨周报), September 24, 2020, https://www.qiaowang.org/m/view.php?aid=13813 (https://archive.ph/FLRg8).
- 54“驻突尼斯大使馆举行国庆72周年中资机构与华侨华人线上招待会” [The Chinese embassy in Tunisia held a virtual reception with Chinese-funded institutions and overseas Chinese to celebrate the 72nd National Day], Chinese Embassy in Tunisia, September 28, 2021, http://tn.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/sgxw/202109/t20210929_9593271.htm (https://archive.ph/Py6dI).
Underlying media resilience
- Media and legal safeguards: Freedom of the press and freedom of information were some of the most significant normative achievements of the 2011 revolution, and these civil liberties remained protected in Tunisia’s constitution during the coverage period. Since 2011, the country has developed a vibrant—if still maturing—media ecosystem. Many independent outlets operate, including several online news sites that launched after 2011.1 The country has a public consultation process for telecommunications infrastructure and an investment screening process that limits foreign ownership in nonindustrial projects to 49 percent.2 The High Independent Authority of the Audiovisual Commission (HAICA) regulates audiovisual media outlets and is responsible for guaranteeing the freedom, independence, and diversity of broadcast media.3 It has enforced regulations governing media cross-ownership.4 Although its members are largely independent and have issued statements that were critical of the government, observers have raised concerns over HAICA’s potential vulnerability to political capture, which may have increased since the president’s July 2021 power grab.5
- Robust civil society monitoring and advocacy for press freedom: The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) publishes regular reports on attacks against journalists or incidents of interference with media content.6 Tunisian civil society cooperates closely with a variety of international organizations that provide funding and resources to monitor and advocate for the protection of media freedom as well as training opportunities to improve media professionalism. Fact-checking platforms flourished in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, though many of these initiatives are run by citizen journalists and may lack the resources necessary for long-term sustainability.7
- Safeguards for media professionalism: In 2020, Tunisia established an independent press council consisting of journalists, media owners, and civil society representatives in order to strengthen journalistic self-regulation and promote best practices related to media ethics.8
- Critical independent reporting on China, including use of international news: Sporadic commentaries in local media have questioned certain aspects of Sino-Tunisian relations, raising concerns, for example, that competition with Chinese companies could hurt small businesses in Tunisia or that cheap Chinese goods could undercut Tunisia’s domestic textile industry.9 However, examples of deeper investigative reporting on China or Chinese activity in Tunisia are limited. In general, Tunisian journalists tend not to specialize in foreign affairs, and Tunisian outlets did not have any foreign correspondents that were based in China during the report coverage period. In addition, Tunisia has a lack of independent in-country academic, think tank, or civil society expertise on China.10 To mitigate this knowledge gap, both privately owned media and TAP have republished independent reporting from international sources such as Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and Al Jazeera that addresses sensitive topics such as the Chinese state’s repression of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.11 In March 2020, one independent outlet published an Arabic translation of the global China Cables investigation into the CCP’s mass internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.12
- Regional cooperation to build investigative reporting capacity on China: Despite Tunisia’s low level of journalistic expertise on China, as bilateral ties deepen, interest in developing the skills for investigative reporting on China–North Africa relations has also increased. In 2019, the Tunis-based independent media group Inkyfada announced its cooperation with the Africa-China Reporting Project in South Africa to host a journalism training workshop. 13 The event, which was held in July 2022, included seminars on topics including a meta-analysis of China-North Africa relations and China’s relations with the francophone community as well as workshops on data journalism and data visualization, cybersecurity, and other opportunities to build journalism capacity. Participants were given an opportunity to receive grants for investigative journalism on North Africa-China relations.14
- 1Freedom House, “Tunisia,” in Freedom in the World 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-world/2022.
- 2“2021 Investment Climate Statements: Tunisia,” U.S. Department of State, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-investment-climate-statements/tunisi….
- 3“Présentation,” [Presentation], HAICA, accessed August 3, 2022, https://haica.tn/presentation/#missions.
- 4“Media regulation,” Media Ownership Monitor: Tunisia, Association Al Khatt, accessed May 16, 2022, http://tunisia.mom-gmr.org/en/findings/media-regulation/.
- 5“Human rights organizations call on Tunisian parliament not to pass amendment to Law on Freedom of Audiovisual Communication,” IFEX, October 20, 2020, https://ifex.org/human-rights-organisations-call-on-tunisian-parliament…; see also: “Tunisia’s media regulator shuts down Nessma TV and al-Quran al-Kareem radio station over licensing issues,” Committee to Protect Journalists, October 27, 2021, https://cpj.org/2021/10/tunisias-media-regulator-shuts-down-nessma-tv-a….
- 6“تقرير شهر جويلية 2022” [July Report 2022], Syndicat National des Journalistes Tunisiens (National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists), accessed August 31, 2022, https://protection.snjt.org/category/التقارير/.
- 7Fredj Zamit, Arwa Kooli,, and Ikram Toumi, “An examination of Tunisian fact-checking resources in the context of COVID-19,” December 14, 2020, Journal of Science Communication Issue 7, Vol. 19, https://jcom.sissa.it/archive/19/07/JCOM_1907_2020_A04.
- 8“Tunisia: Establishment of Press council marks milestone in reform process,” Article 19, September 16, 2020, https://www.article19.org/resources/tunisia-establishment-of-press-coun….
- 9See examples: “بعد تغول الصين.. الاتحاد العام التونسي يطالب بمراجعة العقود” [After China’s incursion, the Tunisian General Union demands a review of contracts], akhbaralaan.net, February 19, 2022, https://www.akhbaralaan.net/ground-zero/2022/02/19/عد-تغول-الصين-الاتحا…; and “استحوذ على 30% من المبادلات التجارية.. "التنين" الصيني يغزو أسواقنا” [It captured 30% of trade exchanges..the Chinese ‘dragon’ invades our markets], Al-Sabah, September 25, 2021, https://www.assabahnews.tn/ar/اقتصاد-و-اعمال/14301-استحوذ-على-30-من-الم….
- 10Interview with Sarah Yerkes, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, February 11, 2022.
- 11See example, “الصين: ''مسلمو الإيغور'' مجبرون على أكل لحم الخنزير وشرب الكحول” [China: Uyghur Muslims Are Forced to Eat Pork and Drink Alcohol], Nessma TV, February 8, 2021, https://www.nessma.tv/ar/أخبار-عالمية/actu/الصين-مسلمو-الإيغور-مجبرون-ع…; Jean-Guillaume Lozato, “La tragédie des Ouighours : Une déportation à domicile” [The tragedy of Uyghurs: deported from home], Kapitalis, May 22, 2022, http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/05/22/la-tragedie-des-ouighours-une-d…. Note that Kapitalis later published a point-by-point rebuttal from the embassy in response to Lozato’s article. See: “Clarifications de l’ambassade de Chine à Tunis à propos des Ouïghours” [Clarifications from the Chinese embassy in Tunis regarding the Uyghurs], Kapitalis, June 1, 2020, https://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/06/01/clarifications-de-lambassade-d….
- 12“تحقيق ما كشفته تسريبات الصين: إيقافات واعتقالات جماعية باعتماد الذكاء الاصطناعي” [Investigation What China’s leaks revealed: mass arrests and arrests using artificial intelligence], Inkyfada, March 10, 2020, https://inkyfada.com/ar/2020/03/10/تسريبات-الصين-اعتقال-رقابة-اويغور/.
- 13“Wits Journalism North Africa-China Journalism 2019 Training Workshop in Tunis, Tunisia,” Opportunities for Africans (OFA), July 19, 2019, https://www.opportunitiesforafricans.com/wits-journalism-north-africa-c….
- 14“REPORT: North Africa-China Journalism Training Workshop, 5-6 July 2022,” Africa China Reporting Project, July 15, 2022, https://africachinareporting.com/report-north-africa-china-journalism-t….
- Lack of transparency: Media ownership and political advertising allocation are opaque, and press freedom advocates have expressed concern about political influence affecting a number of major private outlets. A 2016 freedom of information law was criticized for its security-related exemptions. Government offices often refuse public requests for information. More recently, journalists’ groups have criticized the government’s attempts to limit and control officials’ interactions with the press.1 Although existing media regulations are sufficient on paper, HAICA’s enforcement efforts in practice have been criticized as arbitrary and nontransparent at best and politically motivated at worst.2
- Media politicization and growing threats to press freedom after July 2021: Outstanding challenges to media resilience include a heavily politicized media landscape that hampers independent reporting and leads to self-censorship in the newsroom.3 Although a 2011 law protecting freedom of the press nominally prevents the criminalization of defamation cases, it does not cover online content.4 Since President Saïed’s power grab in July 2021, journalists have faced increased harassment and prosecutions for insult and defamation in military court, while independent news stations have been shuttered or encountered other forms of apparent retaliation for critical coverage.5 Amid the political crisis, the president publicly attacked the media, saying they were “run by a hidden system,”6 which led to fears that he would seek to exert greater control over state-owned media outlets.7 The president also promised to crack down on foreign funding for civil society groups, potentially including nonprofit and privately owned media operating in a legal gray zone.8 Finally, human rights groups have criticized an “anti-speculation law,” issued by executive decree in March 2022, whose provisions criminalize “false or incorrect news or information” that could disrupt consumer behavior.9
- Limited information and expertise on China: In addition to the transparency issues that affect the entire media ecosystem in Tunisia, a lack of publicly available information on the details of content-sharing and cooperation agreements between Tunisian and Chinese state media hinders research into the extent of Chinese media influence in the country. Such opacity, coupled with a lack of academic or journalistic expertise on China and its relations with Tunisia, hampers in-depth investigative reporting on issues such as Chinese investment. The lack of knowledge also creates an opening that pro-Beijing actors can exploit to promote “positive journalism,” sidelining any criticism and shaping media narratives on contentious topics such as the CCP’s oppression of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.
- 1Freedom House, “Tunisia,” in Freedom in the World 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-world/2022.
- 2Mohamed Ali Ltifi, “Media freedom in Tunisia stirs wide debate,” Al-Monitor, November 13, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/11/media-freedom-tunisia-stir….
- 3Freedom House, “Tunisia,” in Freedom on the Net 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-net/2021.
- 4“Tunisia: End unlawful judicial harassment of bloggers,” Article 19, February 5, 2021, https://www.article19.org/resources/tunisia-end-unlawful-judicial-haras….
- 5Ghufrane Mounir, “Tunisia: Arrest of journalist prompts concerns about future of press freedom under Saied,” Middle East Eye, October 5, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/tunisia-media-crackdown-kais-saied-c…; “Tunisia: A grave step in the wrong direction,” Article 19, August 12, 2021, https://www.article19.org/resources/tunisia-a-grave-step-in-the-wrong-d….
- 6“Tunisia president: Judiciary is free, media run by hidden system,” Middle East Monitor, January 22, 2022, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220122-tunisia-president-judiciary-…
- 7“Tunisia: 3 parties warn against Saied’s interference in the state media,” Middle East Monitor, February 23, 2022, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220223-tunisia-3-parties-warn-again…; Eric Goldstein, “In Tunisia, State Television the Latest Battleground,” Human Rights Watch, March 22, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/22/tunisia-state-television-latest-bat….
- 8Louisa Lim, Julia Bergin, and Johan Lidberg, “The Covid-19 Story: Unmasking China’s Global Strategy,” International Federation of Journalists, June 3, 2021, https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/reports/detail/the-covid-19-story-unma…, p. 6. See also: “Tunisia’s Saied will bar foreign funding for civil society,” Reuters, February 25, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tunisias-saied-will-bar-foreign-fu….
- 9“Tunisia: New anti-speculation law threatens freedom of expression,” Amnesty International, March 25, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/03/tunisia-new-anti-specula….
In general, Tunisian media offer little news coverage on China, whether positive or negative. According to the freelance journalist Mohamed Naceur Moualhi, “If it takes place, [coverage] often addresses China from the perspective of a growing economic power in the world or restates some Chinese state propaganda about a certain scientific discovery or similar stories that seek to showcase a bright image about China.”1 Reporting on Chinese investments and economic activity in Tunisia also tends to be shallow, often relying on information from official sources or company press releases.
Like their counterparts in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisians reported largely positive views on China in 2019. According to polling conducted by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Tunisians had a favorable opinion of China, compared with a global median of 40 percent.2 Analysts have suggested that such positive opinions across the region are largely superficial, with “little more than hope and projection being placed on China,” and that Beijing may face risks to its popularity as its engagement with the region grows.3
Relevant evidence on the impact of the CCP’s growing media influence efforts is limited. Survey data from Arab Barometer indicated that favorable views on China increased slightly from July 2020 (54 percent) to March 2021 (59 percent), and that elites in particular welcomed the prospect of Chinese investment.4 However, pollsters concluded that Chinese medical aid during the COVID-19 pandemic did not have much effect on public opinion.5 Tunisians’ broadly positive opinions of China were also not found to be strongly linked to their perceptions of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy toward the region. Just 41 percent of Tunisians said Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies toward the Middle East and North Africa were good or very good in March 2021, a slight improvement from 37 percent in July 2020.6
Afrobarometer found that positive perceptions of China’s influence in Tunisia declined by 12 percentage points between surveys conducted in 2014–15 and 2019–21, with only 30 percent of Tunisians having a favorable view of Chinese influence during this report’s coverage period—the lowest percentage reported among 34 countries surveyed.7 In addition, a minority of Tunisians (19 percent) expressed support for China as a development model in 2019–21, down slightly from when the question was asked in 2014–15 (24 percent).8 Assessments of how much influence Chinese economic activities had in Tunisia dropped between the two surveys, with those who saw “some” or “a lot” of influence declining from 74 percent to 61 percent, despite the fact that trade and investment increased during that time.9 These results suggest that efforts by Chinese state actors and their allies among the political elite in Tunisia to promote China as an attractive model and partner for development had a limited effect on public opinion during the coverage period.
- 1Interview with Mohamed Naceur Moualhi, February 25, 2022.
- 2Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang “Attitudes toward China,” Pew Research Center, December 5, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/12/05/attitudes-toward-china-20….
- 3“Fragile popularity: Arab Attitudes Towards China,” Arab Barometer, December 15, 2021, https://www.arabbarometer.org/2021/12/fragile-popularity-arab-attitudes….
- 4“Fragile popularity: Arab Attitudes Towards China,” Arab Barometer, December 15, 2021, https://www.arabbarometer.org/2021/12/fragile-popularity-arab-attitudes….
- 5Intissar Fakir, Aesha Soliman, “Across the Maghreb, support for all outside actors, including China and Russia, remains low,” Middle East Institute, September 30, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/across-maghreb-support-all-outside-act….
- 6A reported 27 percent thought that Xi Jinping’s policies towards the region were bad or very bad, and almost a third (29 percent) did not answer the question. “Arab Barometer VI: Tunisia Country Report,” Arab Barometer, 2021, https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/Tunisia_ArabBarometer_…, p.16-17.
- 7Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny and Edem Selormey, “Africans welcome China’s influence but maintain democratic aspirations,” Afrobarometer Dispatch No 489, November 15, 2021, https://www.afrobarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/migrated/files/publica…, p.10.
- 8Tunisian support for China as a development model in 2021 was also lower than the regional average across 34 African countries surveyed (23 percent). See: Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny and Edem Selormey, “Africans welcome China’s influence but maintain democratic aspirations,” Afrobarometer Dispatch No 489, November 15, 2021, https://www.afrobarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/migrated/files/publica…, p.12.
- 9Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny and Edem Selormey, “Africans welcome China’s influence but maintain democratic aspirations,” Afrobarometer Dispatch No 489, November 15, 2021, https://www.afrobarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/migrated/files/publica…, p.12.
The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in Tunisia that should be closely monitored in the coming years.
- Increasing alignment between the CCP and an antidemocratic Saïed government: President Saïed is expected to continue his crackdown on political rights and civil liberties, including attacks on press freedom and freedom of expression. He may seek closer ties with Beijing and other authoritarian governments as a way to counter criticism and reductions in foreign aid or investment from Tunisia’s traditional partners in Europe and the United States. Although Chinese economic activity in Tunisia has historically faced setbacks and failures in implementation, CCP-backed investments are notoriously free of any conditions related to human rights, anticorruption safeguards, or transparency, which can make them appealing to undemocratic leaders or states.
- More dissemination of Chinese state media content by Tunisian outlets: In light of Beijing’s ongoing efforts to increase media and cultural cooperation with Tunisia, researchers should expect to observe greater collaboration among Chinese diplomats, Chinese state media, and Tunisian media outlets, including through coproduction projects, increasing the frequency of Chinese embassy op-eds featured in local outlets, and deepening ties with Tunisian media executives. During the coverage period, Chinese actors expanded their social media presence and increased their cooperation with institutional partners such as journalist associations and Tunisian government media and communication entities. It is likely that they will continue evolving their efforts to “penetrate Tunisian media outlets” in addition to boosting soft-power outreach through the promotion of cultural and entertainment content.1
- Potential adoption of CCP censorship tactics and data-governance norms or tools: The Tunisian government, along with those of other Arab states, has demonstrated its willingness to join Chinese efforts to set global cybersecurity and data-governance norms through China-led frameworks such as the Digital Silk Road. If the current government continues its crackdown on civil society and dissent, particularly in online spaces, it may also seek to adapt elements of China’s model for digital authoritarianism.2 It may be worth mentioning that prior to the 2011 revolution, Tunisian authorities maintained an extensive system of electronic surveillance, media censorship, and internet controls.3
- 1Louisa Lim, Julia Bergin, and Johan Lidberg, “The Covid-19 Story: Unmasking China’s Global Strategy,” International Federation of Journalists, June 3, 2021, https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/reports/detail/the-covid-19-story-unma….
- 2For more on concerns regarding the export of China’s model for digital authoritarianism, see: Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting digital authoritarianism: the Russian and Chinese models,” Brookings Institute, August 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/exporting-digital-authoritarianism/; Xiao Qiang, “Chinese Digital Authoritarianism and its Global Impact,” Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) blog, George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, accessed October 4, 2022, https://pomeps.org/chinese-digital-authoritarianism-and-its-global-impa….
- 3“Tunisia country profile,” OpenNet Initiative, August 7, 2009, https://opennet.net/research/profiles/tunisia.
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Global Freedom Score56 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score59 100 partly free