Tunisia

Resilient
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Low
25 85
Local Resilience & Response
Notable
33 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

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.

 

header2 Background

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

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key 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

Disinformation campaigns

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

header4 Resilience + response

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

China-specific resilience

  • 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

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • 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.

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

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.

header7 Future Trajectory

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

On Tunisia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    64 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    63 100 partly free

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