[ Saalouka #5: Sihem Bensedrine ] 'Don't believe the pretty postcard image'

Sihem Bensedrine has been harassed, assaulted, imprisoned and called a prostitute by Tunisia's government-run newspapers. Still, she refuses to keep quiet. Earlier this month she was given the 2008 Peace Prize by the Danish Peace Foundation. MENASSAT spoke with Bensedrine about Tunisia's oppressive media environment and her ongoing efforts to change it.
Sihem Bensedrine. R.R.

Editor's Note: During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance before the coming of the Prophet, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this series, MENASSAT profiles people who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouka #5' is Tunisian journalist and activist Sihem Bensedrine.


A veteran journalist and a human rights activist, Sihem Bensedrine has paid a high price for her work. Over the years, she has been subjected to constant harassment, surveillance, and even physical assault and temporarily imprisonment for speaking out against Tunisian President Ben Ali's regime and the country's poor human rights conditions. She has been depicted as a prostitute and a spy in Tunisia's state-run media. She has been banned from writing in her home country. She maintains numerous email addresses to trick the cyber police from eavesdropping on her work and life. Still, she refuses to keep quiet. 

Bensedrine has been a reporter, editor, and publisher for the past two decades. In the 1980s, she was a reporter for the independent journal Le Phare and she later became political chief at Maghreb Réalités. She has served as editor-in-chief of the Gazette Touristique and managed opposition newspaper El Mawkif.

She is also the founder of the online Tunisian magazine Kalima, which is banned inside Tunisia.

Bensedrine  also serves as the spokesperson for the Tunisian human rights organization, Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie, which she co-founded in 1998. The organization targets corruption in the legal system, oppression against women, torture, persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to Ben Ali's rule.  

She has received several awards for her activism and journalism, including an International Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in 2004.

On February 7, 2008 Bensedrine was awarded the ‘2008 Peace Prize' by the Danish Peace Foundation (Fredsfonden) for her work.

In an interview with MENASSAT from Austria, Bensedrine airs her thoughts on the prize, the Tunisian press environment and her country's human rights conditions, as well as her future plans.

MENASSAT: You were recently awarded the 2008 Peace Prize by the Danish Peace Foundation for your work. Are you happy to have won the prize?

Yes, I am very happy with the prize. It helps shed light on Tunisia and the country’s human rights situation.

MENASSAT: What will you do with the money you received from the award?

S.B.: We are planning to launch an online multimedia platform on freedom of expression in Tunisia and the Maghreb region. It will be a daily platform with information on Tunisian affairs. The Tunisian authorities have a monopoly on the press and we are trying to circumvent the censorship through this new site. It will be a public forum where journalists contribute their stories and where readers can give their comments.

MENASSAT: And you intend to expand that service to Tunisia’s neighbors as well?

Yes, we are hoping to make this portal available and applicable to all the Maghreb countries over time. The authorities are trying to cut communication between the Maghrebians. The Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans hardly know anything about what is happening in their neighboring countries. We are hoping to reconnect the people and circumvent the censorship at the same time through this venture. We are hoping that the youth will play a large role in this project. They are the ones who are suffering the most from this censorship machine.

MENASSAT: You are an independent and outspoken journalist. Are you allowed to write in Tunisia at the moment? 

No, of course I am not allowed to write there. They’ve banned many independent writers in Tunisia.

MENASSAT: Did the authorities give you a reason for the ban?

No reason was given to me. There is no rule of law in Tunisia. The authorities don't respect the law. They simply strip you of your press card and deny you your identity as a journalist. Your name plays a huge part. It doesn't matter what you write. My name prevents me from publishing anything. They closed down my publishing house. I am prevented from doing any work in my country.

MENASSAT: In what ways have you been harassed by the authorities for your professional activities?

At the moment, it's at an OK level. It's not as bad as before. The police keep tabs on me and read my emails. Before, the plainclothes police used to threaten me on a daily basis. They said that I was a prostitute. It was very hard for my family. Even if they know it's not true, imagine having your name on the front page of the papers in an article that says you are selling yourself for money. A week ago, a paper with close ties to the Ministry of Interior called me a spy in an article. Another paper once published information about my German bank account as proof that I'm a spy and I'm receiving foreign money. Free, independent journalists are viewed and treated as the pariahs of society. If you don't obey the censor, you can't have a normal life. 

MENASSAT: Was there a robust independent press before President Ben Ali came in to power in 1987?

There is a big gap in terms of freedom of expression before the rule of Ben Ali and now. We've only been taking steps backwards since Ben Ali came into power. In the 1980s, I was a journalist for an independent newspaper. Twenty years later, I am not able to write the same words as I did then. The independent papers were all closed down. There used to be at least four of them. We have partisan newspapers right now, but you can't expect party-affiliated papers to be neutral. 

MENASSAT: You have previously described Tunisia as a ‘post card nation’; a country depicted as tourist attraction with beautiful sandy beaches.  How come many don't know the Tunisia you are describing? 

The national authorities are investing lots of money to hide the poor nature of human rights in Tunisia from the media. They place paid advertisements [under the guise of news articles, Ed.] glorifying Tunisia in newspapers abroad and some journalists accept to play this game. Put it this way: Burma is a known holiday destination too but it's also known as the home of a dictatorship. It's not the same case with Tunisia. The government is paying a lot to have the bad image wiped off.

MENASSAT: What can be done to improve the situation in your opinion?

Officially, the Tunisian government is fighting terrorism and illegal immigration. Those efforts are widely appreciated by the European governments. They don't want to look too hard at what's behind the pretty postcard image presented by Ben Ali's regime. Tunisia is an important partner for Europe; it's doing their dirty work for them in the war on terror. In reality, the Tunisian people are being suffocated. The youth have no chances in life and turn to extremism. By encouraging the dictatorship the European governments are helping to push our country into a bad state. They should stop this support and instead create chances for the peaceful forces within Tunisia who want to change things. At the moment the peaceful opponents are being marginalized.

MENASSAT: What are your predictions for free speech in Tunisia? A Tunisian comedian was recently jailed for imitating Ben Ali in a sketch. What is your view on the case?

I am sceptical. The situation is worsening. Indeed, last week, comedian Hedi Ouled Baballah was sentenced to one year in prison for satirizing Ben Ali in an artistic performance held in a private club. It is a big concern to me. The authorities are not happy with one year either. They're charging him with receiving counterfeit money as well and want to give him twenty years in prison for that. It's very shameful to do that to an artist.

MENASSAT: What are you working on at the moment?

In March, the Tunisian authorities are publishing their report on human rights before international rights organs. My organization is planning to release a shadow report to coincide with the release of the official one. We are hoping to gather international pressure on Tunisia to fulfill its international commitments.

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Posted on 02/01/2008 - 13:28
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Posted on 01/25/2008 - 12:48
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Posted on 01/04/2008 - 10:05
During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles Arab journalists who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #1' is Iraqi writer/photographer Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Bagdad, Iraq. Local Sunni militia interrogate a Qaida suspect. © Gaith Abdul-Ahad