Sihem Bensedrine – Tunisia’s advocate for press freedom

61-year-old Sihem Bensedrine is a journalist known as a tireless and courageous activist for freedom of the press and human rights in Tunisia. She is the co-founder and spokesperson of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and co-founder of the online magazine Kalima and Radio Kalima, reporting on human rights abuses in Tunisia.

In her 20-plus years fighting for human rights, she has faced harassment and torture, and had to leave the country several times to live in exile. But all the danger she has put herself and her family into has not stopped her from speaking out against the former regimes and fighting for the idea that every Tunisian should live in dignity.

Biography

The third of eleven children, Bensedrine was born in 1950 into a wealthy and conservative family with a strong record in political activism. Her father was a judge who fought for the independence of the judiciary, and her mother’s family participated in the movement opposing the regime of former President Bourguiba. All nine daughters were allowed to study, and Bensedrine decided to go to the University of Toulouse Le Mirail in France, where she completed a degree in philosophy. Upon her return to Tunisia in 1977, she started her career as a journalist who was constantly critical of the regime. In the early years of her career, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief at five newspapers, several of which were subsequently banned by the government.

In 1998, Bensedrine co-founded the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), which was not given legal status by the government. Together with her husband, she also founded the website Kalima (“Word”) in 1999 to report on corruption, torture, harassment and other human rights abuses committed by security forces. Since they did not obtain a license for a print version of Kalima, the magazine had to be online. Kalima later also became a radio station, broadcast via satellite. In her ongoing fight for freedom of the press, Bensedrine then co-founded the Observatory for the Defense of the Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC).

Bensedrine was forced to make huge personal sacrifices and has risked her life on several occasions. Her family has been continuously harassed, and she herself has been subject to a smear campaign, jailed, tortured, beaten up once outside jail, and been put under surveillance by the security forces. She has had to leave the country several times after receiving death threats, living in France, Austria, Germany and Spain with the support of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People and the Writers in Exile program of the German PEN Center. She continued working for Kalima remotely from exile, while traveling around Europe to attend conferences and meetings and give interviews to raise awareness of human rights conditions in Tunisia.

When the uprisings against former President Ben Ali began, Bensedrine decided it was time to return to her home country and join the protests. She arrived in Tunisia on January 14, the day Ben Ali left the country. Since then she has been monitoring the path to democracy and the recent campaign leading to the election of the Constituent Assembly.

Bensedrine has received several awards for her courage and long fight against human rights abuses, including the Award for Journalism under Threat from Amnesty International UK in 2001, the Johann Philipp Palm Award for Freedom of Speech and Press in 2002, the International Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in 2004, the Danish Peace Prize in 2008, the 2011 Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges Award, the 13th Ibn Rushd Award and the International Crisis Group Award in 2011.

Situation

For 23 years, former Tunisian President Ben Ali led an oppressive regime, prohibiting any opposition or criticism and abusing human rights. It was common practice to persecute and torture opponents to the regime, journalists and human rights defenders. All critics of the government were intimidated and silenced, people arbitrarily arrested and detained, many of them were killed. Severe restrictions applied to freedom of press, speech and association.

Having experienced a different life in France as a student, Bensedrine started to become politically active upon her return to Tunisia, fighting for women’s rights and freedom of the press in particular. In her more than 20 years as one of the most prominent opponents of the regime and defender of human rights, she herself has constantly faced the human rights abuses mentioned above.

She lost her job several times and had to be financially supported by her family. After criticizing the regime openly in interviews, she was subject to smear campaigns, accused of being a prostitute and a collaborator with the Mossad (Israeli national intelligence agency), and openly declared an enemy of the state on public television. She was arrested and detained for two months, beaten and tortured. The whole family was under police surveillance, their telephone conversations tapped or cut off, and the brakes on Bensedrine’s car sabotaged. She had to flee abroad on several occasions to escape death threats, her passport was confiscated to prevent her from traveling and her Tunisian citizenship was even revoked for a couple of years.

Today, after the revolution, the situation is changing slowly, and though Bensedrine has already applied for a license to broadcast Radio Kalima in the whole country, she is still waiting, along with 11 other radio stations, for the interim government’s approval.

Achievments

This very courageous woman has continued to make large personal sacrifices, including putting her family at risk, and she has faced constant danger in her fight for the good cause. She has followed in her father’s footsteps; he always fought for his ideas, even if it meant paying a high price.

Although forced into exile for several years, Bensedrine continued to report on human rights abuses in Tunisia and throughout Europe, giving interviews and publishing books, and to promote human rights through Kalima. She always tried to return to her home country, explaining how much it meant to her when Tunisians she met encouraged her to carry on.

Her fight for human rights, women’s rights and press freedom did not end with the revolution and the ousting of former President Ben Ali. Since the revolution, she has been lobbying for free elections and democracy as president of the Arab Working Group of Media Monitoring.

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2 comments

  1. Roland Culkin

    I like the efforts you have put in this, thank you for all the great articles.

  2. Leopoldo Vetere

    Hello. excellent job. I did not anticipate this. This is a impressive story. Thanks!

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