Tunisian police target journalist Slim Boukhdir – again

After being released from jail in July for "insulting behavior towards an official in the exercise of his duty," dissident Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdir suffered yet another incident of abuse at the hands of Tunisian police this week. MENASSAT conducted an exclusive interview with Boukhdir shortly before this latest incident.
Slim Boukhdir. R.R.

TUNIS, September 26, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdir was grabbed by plainclothes police officers last Sunday as he was leaving an Internet café in his hometown of Sfax, and taken to an undisclosed location where he was threatened with "the same destiny as Deif Al-Ghazal," a Lybian journalist who disappeared in 2005.

It is not the first time that Slim Boukhdir has been targeted by the Tunisian authorities. A correspondent with the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi and Al-Arabiya satellite TV, Boukhdir was released in July after serving eight months of a one-year prison sentence for what were widely seen as fabricated charges of insulting a public employee, violating "public decency," and refusing to hand over identification to police.

Shortly before his arrest in November 2007, Boukhdir had accused close aids of Tunisian President Ben Ali of corruption.

In a phone interview with MENASSAT, Boukhdir said his kidnappers justified their action by saying it was part of a criminal investigation, although they did not specify what that meant.

Boukhdir told the Tunisian website Annahda that one of the men told him they were not policemen but were hired by someone to rape or murder of his wife. He said one of his abductors admitted that partial payment had already been made.

After Boukhdir was released some 20 kilometers from Sfax, he contacted his lawyer Abd Al-Raouf Al-Iyadi who came for him.

The incident has been widely condemned by media and human rights organizations..

Reporters without Borders (RSF) has called for a serious investigation, while the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the pattern of injustice against Boukhdir had to stop. The CPJ had earlier lobbied for the Tunisian authorities to give Boukhdir back his passport – something he has been refused since 2003.

The reason for Boukhdir's most recent harassment may have been a September 10 article Boukdhir wrote on an Egyptian website following U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Tunisia, in which he called on President Ben Ali to step up political reforms.


Before the incident, MENASSAT conducted an interview with Slim Boukhdir to learn about his eight-month prison experience, his position towards the government, and the future of journalism as he sees it in Tunisia.

'I am a simple man with a message, just a writer with a pen. I carry no guns so the government does all what it did to me all these years' (Slim Boukhdir)

MENASSAT: There many stories about your arrest in November of 2007 and your subsequent prison sentence. The authorities justified your arrest by accusing you of assaulting a policeman?

"The authorities are not neutral where it concerns my arrest on November 26, 2007. In fact, they just don’t like me at all. I won't go back in detail to the events of that night but I'll clarify the following points:

"I am someone who loves this country and opposes President Ben Ali’s regime. I defend Tunisia’s people. So it isn’t possible that I insulted any Tunisian, including security personnel, simply because they are Tunisians. I never assaulted anyone, by actions or by words.

"On the night of my arrest, I was the one who was cursed at and described as an American agent, and the court refused to look into these events during my December 2007 trial, which was done in the presence of international observers.

"I have a message to deliver, and I have my own opinion. It is unthinkable that I should abandon my opinions and resort to cursing and swearing.

"What I can say is that everything they accused me of was fabricated. There had been many statements issued on the matter. I remember one I read personally after I was released in July by the rights organization Freedom and Justice that listed evidence against all of the government’s claims against me.

"In truth, I was surprised after my July 21 release this year because I watched the government hurriedly arrest many rights activists after me, with exactly the same charges, 'violating public decency.'

"I heard that the Tunisian regime wants to make the year 2008 a year to teach us good manners."

MENASSAT: How did you find prison during your 8-month stint?

"I simply understood why the government does not allow human rights organizations into the prisons. These high-walled fortresses seem from the outside like ordinary jails, where people are simply denied the outside world. But once inside, one learns of more punishments not stated in the original jail term.

"It would be easier to answer a question about what rights are left, since they are fewer than what they take away from you. You are left with little polluted air to breath, a few centimeters of space, and little water to drink, which is often cut off. And lots of bad smells and humidity and diseases. Your dignity is taken away.

"Added to that are the many things you are deprived of. A mirror, for instance, is impossible to obtain in prison. It is extremely crowded, and insults are countless.

"The meaning of words is assassinated in prison, a 'break' or a 'walk' is nothing more than an hour in a concrete space, with a metal roof.  Seeing earth becomes a dream; as for seeing a tree, forget about it."

MENASSAT: You have been accused of fighting personal battles through your media confrontations. What do you say about these accusations?

"I never went into any personal battles with any single part of the regime, and I have no personal agenda when I write about rights issues in Tunisia.

"I am a journalist who has suffered all sorts of government prosecution; I was starved and forbidden from working in my country. I was violently assaulted repeatedly at the hands of the regime's highwaymen; I am besieged and forbidden from traveling for the fifth year in a row. 

"The government has tried to defame my reputation and spread rumors about my person. The authorities made sure to arrest my brother on the exact day I was released.

"If I had a personal agenda, I would have relieved myself of all this, and changed the way I write –objectively and independently, which is what the government does not like. I would have abandoned the journalists' code of honor which binds me to tell the truth as it is, to the general public, and adhere to nothing but the truth.

"I am a simple man with a message, just a writer with a pen. I carry no guns so the government does all what it did to me all these years."

MENASSAT: Many bloggers campaigned for your release. What do you think of the blogging phenomenon?

"This regime has forgotten that an honest word reaches the hearts no matter what. I thank all the honest people who have blogged in favor of releasing me. I am a journalist but I am a blogger myself. One day blogs will become an alternative to our muted newspapers."

MENASSAT: What has been the effect of your prison sentence?

"It gave me many health problems, and a mysterious headache that is still not diagnosed yet.

"But more importantly, I also left prison with a hunger for writing, which the regime denied me for eight months. And everyone who wrote about me and supported me in any way honored me. All this proves that the regime's tricks are futile – trying to hide its injustice towards me, as a journalist, and a human being. And it will never work, hopefully."

The Smiling Oppressor, a new Tunisia report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Tunisia offers a warm embrace to its friends internationally. At home, it silences critics with a vengeance.

New York, September 23, 2008 (CPJ) – Tunisia promotes itself as a progressive nation that protects human rights, but a CPJ investigation has found that it aggressively silences journalists and others who challenge the policies of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In a new report, "The Smiling Oppressor," CPJ has found journalists subject to routine imprisonment, assault, harassment, and censorship.

Ben Ali's administration enjoys close ties with Western governments, which have been largely silent about the country's press freedom record. But CPJ's investigation found that Tunisia falls well short of internationally accepted standards for free expression.

Ben Ali's government imposes broad restrictions on news coverage – banning, for example, coverage that could be construed as "offending the president" – while it tightly regulates the licensing of print and broadcast media. Licenses are doled out to government allies and denied to potentially critical news outlets, CPJ found. Critical journalists who turn to the Internet or small opposition newspapers have been harassed by security agents, subject to assault, and jailed. Tunisia, along with Morocco, leads the Arab world in jailing journalists.

"Known across the world for its stunning beaches and tourist locales, Tunisia quietly operates a police state at home," writes Joel Campagna, the author of CPJ's report.

"The print press does not criticize the president and is largely paralyzed by self-censorship. The few critical voices who do write on the Internet, for foreign publications, and low-circulation opposition weeklies are regularly harassed and marginalized by the Tunisian authorities."

The full report is available online at http://www.cpj.org/smiling/ and will appear in the coming edition of CPJ's magazine, Dangerous Assignments.