'I have taken a lot and I will take more'

Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdhir has been in a Tunisian jail for 7 months, charged with refusing to give his ID-card to a police officer. MENASSAT highlights the case.
tunisian journalist
Slim Boukhdir as an icon. R.R.

TUNIS, June 3, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Slim Boukhdhir was famous for his sarcastic articles critical of the Tunisian regime. The 39-year-old reporter and blogger had written for pan Arab press outlets like the London-based daily al-Quds al-Araby, and was an editor for websites such as the Tunis News.

But he knew his outspoken criticism of the Tunisian government would not last long, he said in a letter recently leaked to MENASSAT from his jail cell.

"I knew I would be arrested before the actual arrest came," he said in the letter.

Boukhdhir was picked up on November 26, 2007 when Tunisian security forces stopped his cab riding on the way back to Tunis from his family’s home in the south.

According to testimony, the arresting police officer referred to Boukhdhir by name and asked to show his ID card when he pulled the cab over - something Boukhdhir's legal team says indicates he was being targeted.

In the end, Boukhdhir refused to give his ID and the resulting exchange landed him in jail, charged with "insulting a public officer in the performance of his duties" and "breaching public morality."

In the letter given to MENASSAT Boukhdhir said, "I remember Radia al Narawy (head of the Tunisian Association Against Torture) telling me at Mohammad Abou's house (human rights lawyer jailed for 'insulting the judiciary' for an article he wrote in 2005) after his release last fall – Now it's your turn."

Early in December 2007, Boukhdhir was sentenced to one year in jail, much to the surprise of legal observers who viewed the sentence as overly punitive.

At the time, activists and political figures alike said the sentence was a response to articles he had written on government corruption and governmental abuses of power. As well, he initiated numerous hunger strikes in order to denounce what he said was "government harassment," and political restrictions levied on his right to leave the country.

On the morning he was arrested, he was due to receive his passport from the Tunisian government days after ending a hunger strike he started in early November 2007 to force the issue.

But recent health concerns have prompted a renewed outpouring of support for Boukhdhir.

In the letter leaked to the press, Boukhdhir alleges he's been subjected to an unusual level of persecution by prison authorities in the Sfax prison where he is serving his sentence.

"I have been deprived of even my basic human rights – including fresh air (I contracted asthma in prison) and even water. I have taken a lot and I will take more, and I will never give my jailers the pleasure of shedding one tear," he said.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has petitioned 20 foreign embassies in Tunisia to assure that Boukhdhir is being taken care of while detained, and has stepped up its call to loosen press restrictions imposed on journalists here.

For their part, Tunisian officials continued to assert that freedom of the press is protected by the constitution and is fully respected, and that "no journalist ever faced trial because of his opinion."

"Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali repeated his promise to open up the country to 'a diversity of opinion' and urged the press to be bolder. But several journalists were physically attacked by police in 2007 while doing their job or brought before a court for bogus reasons," RSF's annual report on Tunisia stated.

The report said that "censorship remained as tight as ever and many foreign newspapers containing articles about Tunisia were not allowed into the country," because "the regime allows no social or political protests, newspapers of the legal opposition are monitored closely and seized at the slightest sign of criticism and the authorities are obsessed with controlling the news."

If Slim Boukhdhir's sentence is somehow commuted, what is clear is that he would be coming back to a media environment that would be no less hostile than when he went into jail.