In the medina of Tunis, L’Art Rue, the association responsible for Dream City, and ArtWatch Africa hosted a workshop on “Status of the artist in Tunisia: current context and perspectives.” Towards the end of a four-day training on “artistic rights and freedom of creative expression,” the event was attended by representatives of the Ministry of Culture, including the Minister Sonia M’barek, in addition to artists, activists, researchers, and journalists among others from different regions across the country.

Journalist Hatem Bourial facilitates the workshop on Status of the Artist in Tunisia. Photo credit to Nao Maltese © L’Art Rue

At L’Art Rue headquarters on the morning of July 14, lawyer Omar Labiadh opened the discussion with an overview of the legal framework concerning artists in Tunisia. “There is no specific status for artists; they fall under the category of liberal profession or paid employee,” began Labiadh, who proceeded to characterize the “Kafka-esque dilemma” facing artists who wish seek legal recognition through the Ministry of Culture.

Legal void and social, economic insecurity

Indeed, there is no legal text designated for the status of artists in Tunisia. Instead, the social and economic implications of such recognition is dependent upon several provisions dating from the 1960s, when policies were driven by a politics of national unity as opposed to cultural diversity. As per Law 29 of April 1964 which classifies professions within the art sector (screenwriters, musicians, composers, sculptors, dancers, photographers, etc.), artists can apply for a professional card in the category of “liberal professional” or “paid employee.” Law 2002-104 of 30 December 2002 concerning the social security of artists, creators, and intellectuals affords access to social security benefits through the National Fund for Social Security (CNSS). But some artists, Labiadh recounted, indignant that public authorities should be able to decide their status as an artist or creator in the cultural sector (since this qualification requires “proof” of competence and experience) refuse to apply for these benefits.

The new Constitution of 2014 guarantees freedom of expression and publication (Article 31), intellectual property (Article 41) and the right to culture and freedom of creative expression (Article 42). Furthermore, “the state encourages cultural creativity and supports the strengthening of national culture, its diversity and renewal…” Along these lines, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage Preservation has asserted a “new model of governance” and cultural policies as a “vector of social and economic development.” In the meantime, awaiting practice to follow principle, artists and creators within affiliated with cultural sector have organized discussions and actions to push the question of legal status to center stage.

Administrative hold up

Among those active in these actions is theater and film director Mounir Baaziz. Baaziz confirmed that dialogue has indeed been opened between citizens and authorities through an initiative (Mouvement des indignés) driven by cinema and theater professionals, and which “remains open to all those who work in culture.” As Baaziz has articulated in the past, the legal gap in the cultural sector has resulted in a situation of distress for colleagues who, after forty years of service, have little to no social coverage, no right to retirement. Although pressure on public institutions in the 1990s succeeded in the implementation of a mechanism through which artists who apply can benefit from social coverage, their associated status remains “random, indeterminate, and irregular.” During the 26th edition of the Carthage Film Festival in November 2015, participants of the Movement sat with representatives of the Ministries of Social Affairs, Finance, and Culture to propose a revised definition of a “professional” to  include “all those whose work in different cultural fields depends upon their imagination, their intelligence, their hands.” By now, Baaziz explains, it has been two years and actors in the cultural sector are still awaiting the concretization of reforms discussed with concerned Ministries.

A new draft law in the works

In the meantime, representatives of the Ministry of Culture present on July 14 indicated that work is underway to provide a definitive text for artists. Following a commentary that “it is not the right moment to present ARP deputies with a measure concerning the status of artists,” Lamia Bnouni, Program Director within the  Ministry, pointed out that such a draft law has been in the works for two years, a process that has included consultations with both citizens and EU institutions. The text, she said, is dually focused on social and economic factors, and takes into account artists and creators, artistic as well as peripheral activities, and beyond filling a legal gap aims to render the artist an economic force.

From left: Bilel Aboudi (Ministry of Culture), Minister of Culture Sonia M’barek, Sofiane Ouissi (L’Art Rue). Photo credit to Nao Maltese © L’Art Rue

Minister of Culture Sonia M’barek touched on the elaboration of a new law for artists within the context of a “new model of governance” in which dialogue with artists and intellectuals is fundamental to reforms and decisions within the sector. She reiterated the government’s collaboration with the European Union, who is providing support to the Ministry in the implementation of its policies of “democratization, decentralization, and de-concentration” in the cultural sector.

In May, Minister M’barek and EU ambassador Laura Baeza launched the Support Program for the Strengthening of the Cultural Sector, a twinning project to be financed by the EU (four million dollars to be disbursed over four years) and implemented by the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC). Noting that “Artists are confronted with a status that is uncertain, difficult, and inconsistent. Their protection is poorly ensured, their symbolic status weak, and their economic situation fragile,” the EU has committed to providing technical assistance as a means to “develop a status for artists and Tunisian artistic professions in conformity with their needs and expectations and which regulates their precarious situation.”

Reflections posted by participants of the training “For artistic rights and freedom of creative expression,” 12-15 July 2016, Tunis. Photo credit to Vanessa Szakal, Nawaat

A discussion on “current context and perspectives,” the workshop on July 14 was organized with this objective in mind, and in the context of the Ministry’s responsibilities and promises to renew its practices and policies in the cultural sector. Following the morning’s panel discussion and interventions by government representatives, participants divided themselves into groups to address specific themes. These included: social and legal promotion; freedom of creation and cultural journalism; entrepreneurship and financing; education and training; the public space. Informed that their observations and recommendations on these issues were to be relayed to decision-makers, group members designated a rapporteur and recorded in writing the problems identified and solutions proposed.

At roundtable events in the presence of EU funders and Tunisians who work in art and culture, M’barek affirms that her Ministry has moved beyond words and is in the phase of action. With the recent designation of four million euros to the sector, the question remains whether or not such support will accompany the implementation of new policies, and specifically a framework ensuring the social and economic security of artists in Tunisia.