Businessman buys Dar al-Sabah, Tunisians fear loss of last independent media outlet

Dar al-Sabah (The Morning) publishing house moves into the hands of businessman Fahed Sakher al-Materi - an institution that journalists say could have provided a margin of independence and freedom in Tunisia.
Businessman Fahed Sakher al-Materi buys publishing house Dar al-Sabah.

TUNIS, May 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) - After a number of different rumors spread in Tunisia regarding the fate of publishing house Dar al-Sabah (The Morning), the news became clear – businessman Fahed Sakher al-Matri bought the renowned company  – a move that lead to outcries in media circles.

Al-Sabah publishing house, established by the late Tunisian journalist Al-Habib Sheikh Rouhou in 1951, and passed on to members of his family in 1994, was considered an institution that could have provided a margin of independence and freedom for journalists - before Al-Matri's ownership was announced.

The house publishes two widespread dailies, al-Sabah (The Morning) in Arabic, Le Temps in French, and two Arabic weekly newspapers “al-Sabah al-Ousboui” and Sabah al-Kheir (Good morning). 

For about fifty years, these newspapers oscillated between utter criticism and ultimate support of the Tunisian government, all the while maintaining a decent level of seriousness in their articles, especially in comparison with the rest of the local press.

The news of Al-Matri's investment in Al-Sabah was shocking to media workers, as most see Al-Matri's ownership as losing the few remaining significant media outlets to the hands of the government.

Family ties

Initially, the rumor that an anonymous famous businessman had bought Al-Sabah began when the publishing house was listed on the market, while percentages of its capital remained unclear. 

Soon after, the rumor became a reality when local and foreign press published a letter by the Tunis-Africa News Agency stating that the giant company Princess Group headed by Sakher al-Matri bought 70% of Dar al-Sabah.

Media workers were shocked by the news, mainly due to al-Matri's history and to his ties to the government.

Al-Matri, 29, saw his shares skyrocket during the past few years after he married the Tunisian President’s daughter, Nisrine Zin al-Abadin bin Ali, placing him in a position of greater power.

Many governmental departments, including the political opposition, spoke about Sakher al-Matri, son of Colonel Monsef al-Matri who is the friend of the current president and who led a failed coup in 1962 against late president al-Habibi Bourqiba.

Meanwhile, al-Matri took advantage of his close relation to the Tunisian president, as his profits skyrocketed in a short period of time.

In a report published by e-newspaper al-Wasat, al-Matri is said to own a gigantic economic network in a small country with limited financial potentials.

His investments include maritime transport of 80 million dollars, wide commercial companies, a milk company (Nestle Tunisia), banks, real estate, pharmaceuticals, international cars, as well as an exclusive agreement to provide the administration with cars, along with other economic deals in the richest sectors in Tunisia.

However, some, such as journalist Jamal al-Arfawi don't think the interests of a rich owner will affect the papers published by al-Sabah.

He told MENASSAT, “The times of a degrading press are long gone. We are now living in the era of the media industry. I think that major businessmen are actually the ones capable of reviving the industry, which is something the country needs.”

Media moving towards Islam

Others fear that Al-Matri's sudden move to politics will influence the papers' independence. 

At the Democratic Constitutional Gathering Party’s last conference, which has ruled the country with an iron fist for the last 50 years, Al-Matri was able to get a membership in the central committee, preparing himself to gain higher political positions in the near future.

Ziad al-Hani, a member of the Administrative Committee of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, questions Al-Matri's move.

“Is it possible for someone with a leadership post to allow his employees to keep their independence and financial freedom away from him and his party? What are the positions that Al-Matri took that prove that he will respect the independence of the newspapers of al-Sabah publishing house?” he told MENASSAT.

These questions also crossed al-Arfawi’s mind, who said, “The name al-Sabah is very symbolic in the memory of the Tunisian people, for the institution is related to the time of the national movement."

Al-Matri, however, did make a statement that was published in local papers, including those in competition with Dar al-Sabah.

“The independent vision of the founder of al-Sabah newspaper will remain an inspiration for us in the present and in the future.”

The new owner of Al-Sabah is also being questioned about his role in the increase in religious programming in Tunisia, which some think is a government-led approach to trying to win the hearts of Tunisians through religion.

In 2007, Al-Matri launchedZitouna for the Holy Quran,” the first religious radio station in Tunisia, which has reached highest rate of listeners in the last few months.

News reports also said that al-Matri will soon establish a religious satellite channel “Zitouna.”

Also, At-Tariq al-Jadid opposition newspaper reported that the Tunisian central bank agreed to issue a license to establish the first Tunisian Islamic bank, to be owned by Sakher al-Matri, who filed for a permit in 2008.

At that time, PM Mohamad al-Ghanoushi declared that he has no intention to allow such banks in Tunis, unless they are international. However, al-Ghanoushi’s decision seems to have been overridden.