Analysis: Tunisian media is becoming more “Islamized”



 
A survey in Tunisia showed a record increase in the number of listeners that tune in to the Islamic “Zaytouna” radio station, rating it as the most listened to station in Tunisia. MENASSAT's correspondent Sofiene Chourabi looks at the reasons for this sudden rise in popularity.
 
By SOFIENE CHOURABI
 
zaytouni.jpg
Government-backed Zaytouna radio is poised to attract the mainstream Muslim adherents in Tunisia as part of a campaign to dominate in political and religious sectors of society.© Zaytouna

TUNIS, February 23, 2009 (MENASSAT) - In a recent report that surveyed radio listeners in Tunisia, the Sigma Consulting Center found that “Zaytouna” – a private religious radio station – topped the list with 12.1 percent audience share throughout the country.

Private variety radio station Mosaic came close with 11.3 percent, followed by government-backed radio station “Youth” and multi-language “Tunis International.”

The state radio broadcaster “The National Radio' was at the bottom of the list with 3.8 percent. 

These results reveal a very slim margin in audience share between Zaytouna and Mosaic, and analysts say the numbers reflect the Tunisian governments obvious power over the marketplace.

The first sign of Tunisia’s interference was the leap in popularity by Zaytouna, founded in September 2007 by Mohamed Sakhr El Matri, a well-known businessman and son-in-law of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

However, the station’s early emergence and meteoric rise in popularity in the Tunisian media scene have attracted its share of critics who see the rise in fame as being by government design.

Why religious radio?

It is no secret that independent media projects in Tunisia are rare. The government has had a hegemony on the media for decades.

And independent media ventures have been unsuccessful in Tunisia because the government has a "predetermined" criterion for handing out licenses. 

Every new media project in Tunisia is forced into a partnership with President Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party , and until now, the government has maintained its repression of independent media outlets by, first of all, limiting permits to individuals and groups that are not close to the ruling authorities.
 
Secondly, media channels that have challenged the party line, such as Radio "Kalima" and a satellite TV channel “Al Hiwar Ettounsi," have faced consistent harassment. On January 30, 2009 Kalima was raided by police and forced to close down, which was the beginning of a crackdown on journalists, who have been harassed by police and put under surveillance for some time now.

Despite its religious focus, the establishment of Zaytouna radio implies government sanctioning.

Thus, it came as no surprise that a relative of the Tunisian president was offered a top management position in the station.

However, the question remains as to why "religious" radio has peaked in the popularity polls?

Tunisian Society more Islamicized


MENASSAT spoke with Tunisian media critic Khmais Khayati and author of the book  "Seeping Sand: Salafist discourse in Arab Satellite Channels," who said that Zaytouna’s popularity is part of the society’s general shift towards Islam.

"This is normal if we look at the reappearance of  'religious' matter in public life in our country. I do not mean the 'faith' matter, which has never disappeared from this country, despite what is being said about reconciliation between Tunisia and Islam," Khayati said.

He added, “People are praying in the streets instead of just praying in the mosques. There is a social pressure to keep up with the religious pace, which includes listening to the Zaytouna radio in cabs and many shops, cafes and other ...”

Indeed, contrary to what a number of the pro-Islamic websites and television stations are trying to promote, Tunisian government policy is witnessing  drastic fluctuations in terms of dealing with the "religious issue" in general.

During the nineties the government faced massive floods of criticism from oppressed Islamists, who were accusing the state of being "infidel" and of  "colluding with the West against Islam." This resulted in the emergence and proliferation of terrorist groups and the spread of Salafist –Jihadist ideology, philosophies attached to those who carried out a terrorist act in Tunis in January 2007.

Survey lacks credibility

Those who have been following the political situation in Tunisia have noticed that the government has radically changed its religious policies in recent years, a move that opposition groups say could threaten hard-fought political reforms.

Tunisia has also began promoting so-called " Tunisian moderates" in the face of the more radical forms of Islam that have been attracting larger numbers throughout the Arab world. This program has included a host of intellectual and religious forums to guarantee the programs promotion locally and regionally.
 
As well, it is clear that the government developed the program under the radar of Tunisia's religious leaders in order to assert hegemony in both the political and religious arenas.

But what about the other radio stations that do not rely on religious programming?

Journalist Taoufik Ayachi of the dissident newspaper “Ettarik El Jedid” said "The position of Radio Mosaic, as second in most-listened to, can be explained by a number of facts."

"Most importantly," Ayachi added, "Mosaic is the first private radio station in Tunisia that emerged amid a media based on official governmental positions, in a society that craves courage and objectivity in journalism.Thus Radio Mosaic has been successful in challenging traditional information, adopting an editorial line faithful to the Tunisian public.”

Media critic Khayati partly explains, “Radio station Zaytouna's success is mainly due to the fact that it has received substantial (government) support," something that cultural stations don't enjoy even after some have been operating for more than one year.

Speaking about the media survey, professor at the faculty of Press and Information Sciences Salwa Sharafi told MENASSAT, "First the primary problem in these types of surveys is their credibility, even in countries that have a great potential to be accurate. That is why we should ask ourselves whether the sample actually represents the public opinion."