Pro-Ben Ali, Berlusconi Funded Propaganda Media Seeks to Adapt
[The North Africa Journal] While Italian politics has been rocked by the criminal investigation that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is now under for having inappropriate sexual relations with a 17 year old girl, and then giving the girl a get out of jail free card, Prime Minister Berlusconi’s foray into the Maghreb media market has been no less scandalous. He has poured money into a Tunisian media market that essentially acted as a propaganda machine on behalf of the Ben Ali regime, preventing the rise of democracy that would have created opportunities for Tunisians at home instead of forcing many to seek refuge in Italy. In some sense, the exodus of illegal immigrants from Tunisia and into Italy is indirectly the result of Berlusconi's own economic calculus. While that same media is now seeking to fix its image, questions will no doubt be raised in the mid-term when the Tunisian transition period ends and moves into a more stable phase.
In May 2008 in full cooperation with the regime of President Zine Ben Ali, MediaSet the Television company owned by Berlusconi and operated by his family invested 21 million Euros for a 25% stake in Nessma TV. Nessma is a Pan-Maghreb TV channel aimed at reaching 90 million viewers in the Maghreb proper, 6 million North Africans in France and 2 million others in Italy. Berlusconi’s other partners in the Nessma TV venture were the famed Paris based Tunisian film director, Tarek Ben Ammar and the Tunisian brothers who have their own media and advertising empire Nabil and Ghazi Karoui.
At the launch of Nessma TV, it was announced the station was designed as a counterweight to pro-Islamist TV channels that were becoming increasingly common in the Arab world. Rather than being a serious counterweight to Islamists in the Maghreb, the station was actually a mouthpiece for the Ben Ali regime and its propaganda machine.
Similar to Berlusconi’s European TV channels, Nessma TV was known for its role in distracting the public from the real issues at hand filling time slots with shows full of beautiful dancing women, reruns of American sitcoms, American Idol type knockoff shows introducing the public to new singers, and wide detailed coverage of sports. Serious news coverage, investigative journalism and criticism of society was nowhere to be found on the Nessma TV network. In fact during the sham October 2009 “Presidential Elections” which President Ben Ali “won” with an incredible 89% of the votes, Nessma TV broadcast the Ben Ali campaign’s famous “commercial,” which can be found embedded below, as well as detailed praises of the President while failing to cover the campaigns of any of the token opposition candidates. Although not run completely by the state like other Tunisian television networks Nessma TV never showed the independence of a private TV station, it was rather a façade of independent media owned partially by the Italian Prime Minister for the regime to point as an example of reform for foreigners.
Two weeks into the Tunisian uprising that was started in Sidi Bouzid, Nessma TV began to broadcast criticisms of the Ben Ali regime. Many of those Tunisian talking heads who had long used the Nessma TV network to sing praises of Ben Ali and to give rosy praises of the accomplishments of Tunisia suddenly started using the network to absolve themselves of their past praises and condemn President Ben Ali for his dictatorial practices. By this time, Al Jazeera had already spent two weeks covering the uprising and the vast majority of the Tunisian people knew what was happening in their country. Nessma TV was far from the first source to break the news. It is still being used by agents of the old regime to tout their post-revolutionary reforms in the interim government while many of the serious democratic activists and journalists long ignored by the network are still being ignored today. Nessma TV has still kept a time schedule similar to its regular programming under Ben Ali’s regime, heavy with the unserious subjects.
This has all happened under the watchful eye of Silvio Berlusconi, who’s xenophobic Interior Minister Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Lega Nord Party caused an unnecessary diplomatic spat with Tunisia’s interim government when he proposed sending the Italian Police to Tunisia to keep Tunisians fleeing the uncertainty that occurs after every revolution from immigrating to Italy. If the Prime Minister’s sex scandals are not enough for the Italian people to be motivated to change their Prime Minister, perhaps they should consider his shady business dealings in Tunisia.
Video of Nessma TV supporting candidate Ben Ali during the Presidential Elections