In cooperation with Jacob Høigilt (University of Oslo), he has investigated the political role of journalism in Tunisia and Lebanon. Their research has resulted in the book Journalism in the Grey Zone: Pluralism and Media Capture in Lebanon and Tunisia.
“Although the media and journalism have a prominent position in the Arab world, it is still an understudied topic,” says Selvik.
Not necessarily based on freedom of expression
Arab media has historically been heavily censored and controlled by authoritarian leaders who exploited it for propaganda purposes. However, when states move towards democracy, the question of journalists’ political orientation becomes more open.
Hence, When Selvik and Høigilt began the research project "Journalism in struggles for democracy: media and polarization in the Middle East", they wanted to examine the political role of journalism in two of the freest countries in the Middle East: Lebanon and Tunisia.
The researchers interviewed nearly a hundred journalists, politicians, and activists and analysed media content in both countries. They examined how journalists positioned themselves in critical situations such as elections and protests, including the vast anti-government protests in Lebanon in 2019.
They also examined the journalistic discourse on security and freedom of expression, as after the terror attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in 2015.
Then, many influential commentators on the popular Tunisian TV channel Elhiwar ElTounsi went to great lengths to legitimise new laws that put Tunisia’s democratic transition in reverse.
“We expected journalists to defend freedom of expression more eagerly, assuming it would be the basis of their profession. But journalism is not always based on the freedom of expression.”
Trumpets and change agents
“Often, when we hear about journalists from countries outside Europe, it is because they are repressed by autocratic regimes. But the reality is more complex. Some journalists are just fine with being tools for powerful people. It’s a way to make a living,” says Selvik.
Media instrumentalisation – when the press is used as a tool for personal gain – happens everywhere in the world, but different countries have different abilities to resist.
In Lebanon and Tunisia, there is a clear distinction between the so-called "trumpets", those who blow the horn when the king speaks, and the journalists who try to strengthen and preserve an independent and professional press.
“The media instrumentalization is not complete, it constantly creates resistance. Whenever you bribe a journalist, you provoke another, who resents that others are making a better living by dragging journalism’s reputation through the mud,” says Selvik.
Critical journalists find ways to practice their profession and challenge the authorities.
“The TV channels are most influential but tend to end up in the hands of corrupt elites because they are so expensive to operate. At the other end of the scale, digital media offers opportunities to start a media channel without huge financial resources. Radio is somewhere in the middle. Both Lebanon and Tunisia have independent media that are operated from digital platforms.”
Tunisia’s democratic backsliding
Contextual differences affect journalists’ ability to carve out an operating space in the two countries.
While civil society and the journalists' union are strong and active in Tunisia, they are weak and completely corrupted by the authorities in Lebanon.
“Lebanese journalists tried to set up an independent union during the protests in 2019, they are still working on it. In Tunisia, meanwhile, the trade union reacts, reports, and demonstrates when the rights of journalists are trampled on,” says Selvik.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia also created an impressive institutional framework to prevent the use of media as a political tool.
“During elections, for example, the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) ensured that all candidates had right to the same amount of airtime. Media instrumentalisation still existed, but the existence of an independent media regulator made a big difference.”
Unfortunately, Tunisia is today sliding back towards autocracy. In classic authoritarian fashion, president Kais Saied accuses his opponents of collaborating with foreign agents. When Selvik visited Tunisia recently, the atmosphere among journalists was tense.
“Many were worried, not all of them wanted to talk to us.”