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Tunisian protesters say media bill would open sector to graft, extremism

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Journalists and activists protested on Tuesday outside Tunisia’s parliament against a proposed law to shake up the media sector by removing a requirement for television and radio stations to have official licences.

The bill’s supporters include the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and the media mogul Nabil Karoui, whose own unlicensed Nessma television station played a big role in his campaign for president last year.

However, about 300 protesters at Tuesday’s demonstration said that relaxing licensing rules for media channels risks giving powerful outside interests the power to interfere in Tunisia’s young democracy.

“This proposed amendment presents a real threat to democracy and for the press sector,” said Mehdi Jlassi, president of the journalists’ labour syndicate. “Cancelling licenses will open the door to corrupt money, politicians and perhaps extremists to control the sector,” he said.

Supporters of the bill, due to be discussed by parliament on Tuesday, say it will allow the sector to grow and help establish more news channels and create more jobs.

Saif Eddine Maklouf, head of the pro-government Karama coalition in parliament, said it would be good for Tunisians to have more TV channels to choose from beside the nine now available, and he saw nothing wrong with foreigners owning media.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said last week he supported any initiative that would liberalize the media sector, while ensuring its independence.

The protesters also oppose a provision in the bill which would allow a simple parliamentary majority to appoint members of the media regulator instead of the two-thirds majority required now.

If passed, this would allow parliamentary coalition parties backing the government to control the media regulator, in effect ending its independence, the protesters say.

Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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