Ben Brik, 'The Maradona of the Tunisian press'

When Tunisian writer and journalist Taoufik Ben Brik called his latest book, 'I won't leave,' the authorities took him quite literally – they cancelled his trip to Algiers, where he was supposed to present his work. MENASSAT called him up in Tunis.
Taoufik Ben Brik in a 2000 campaign by Reporters without Borders. R.R.

BEIRUT/TUNIS, Feb. 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) – On January 22, the prominent Tunisian independent journalist Taoufik Ben Brik was scheduled to take part in the launching of his new book, "Je ne partirai pas" (I will not leave), in the Algerian capital. Ironically, the author himself was unable to attend. Shortly before the event, Ben Brik received a phone call in Tunis, informing him that the conference, a joint venture by the Algerian publishing house Editions Chihab and the French Cultural Center in Algiers, had been cancelled.

According to Ben Brik, the incident was the joint work of the Algerian and Tunisian regimes.

This is certainly not the first time Ben Brik has experienced hardships in his journalistic and writing career. As one of the most well known Tunisian dissident writers, he has had several run-ins with the Tunisian regime over the past years. He has been subject to constant harassment and censorship. His passport has been revoked. His family's property has allegedly been vandalized by suspected plainclothes police officers.

Following the publication of articles Ben Brik wrote on Tunisia’s human rights conditions for European newspapers in the spring of 2000, he was asked to appear before the general prosecutor. Ben Brik responded by launching a hunger strike in protest of his treatment and that of other rights activists. The Tunisian authorities dropped the charges against him a month later. 

The controversial writer started his work at the state-run newspaper La Presse Soir, but he soon quit and went on to work for the weekly publication Maghreb. When Maghreb was suspended Ben Brik became a regular contributor to the foreign – mostly French – press.

Menassat had the opportunity to have a chat with the "Maradona of the Tunisian and international press," as the charismatic writer likes to refer to himself.

MENASSAT: What happened with the launching of your book in Algeria? Why was it cancelled?

It was a clear sign of cooperation between Arab regimes. The Ministries of the Arab world work closely together and I am blacklisted by many of them. I have been prohibited from entering both Egypt and Lebanon before. I had paid the plane ticket and everything. 

MENASSAT: So you are not surprised over what happened in Algeria? 

B.B.: You know, I am a popular writer in Algeria. I have many friends there. It's like my [second] country. But I have a problem with the Algerian President Bouteflika. He has previously declared publicly that he doesn't want me in Algeria.

MENASSAT: What is the theme of your new book? Do you believe its content might have played a role in the annulment of the conference?

B.B.: In my new, book I talk about the Tunisian people, about a Tunisia that does not exist anymore. I live here, but I don't live with them. I live in my own Tunisia. The style is much like that of Woody Allen's writings. No, I do not believe the theme of the book was the reason for them canceling the event at all. Rather, it's the cooperation between the Tunisian and Algerian authorities that prevented me from going.

MENASSAT: Tunisia constantly appears on the blacklists of press freedom groups. They say your country has a severely restricted press environment. What’s your take on that?

B.B.: (Sighs.) They talk about the killing of journalists in the press. Well, here in Tunisia there are none [to kill.]  Except for me, perhaps (laughs). They're all gone at this point. Many have been banned to work in the country. I was banned to write in Tunisia too. It's like they banned me from breathing. There are no independent publications here. They're all under the control of the government.

MENASSAT: You refer to yourself as the ‘Maradona of the Tunisian Press’. Can you explain what you mean by that?

B.B.: I am the Maradona, not only of the Tunisian press, but also of the international press. No one wants me to write for them. They're scared of censorship. I'd like to say that while I don't have freedom, I always have the word. At least I can express myself about freedom and liberty.