Interview with Sihem Ben Sedrine

Untiring Work for Human Rights

Sihem Ben Sedrine is a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist. She has now been awarded the 2003 Johann Philipp Palm Prize for Freedom of Speech and the Press. Interview by Silvia Kuske

photo: Reporters without Borders
Sihem Ben Sedrine

​​Besides working as a journalist, Sihem Ben Sedrine is also a founding member and the present speaker for the “National Council for Liberties” in Tunisia, which is not recognized by the government; General Secretary of the “Observatory for the Defense of the Freedom of the Press”; and editor-in-chief of the online newspaper “Kalima,” which is forbidden in Tunisia. Her unbending and courageous behavior have led to her being put under surveillance, persecuted, violently attacked, and imprisoned.

She was the guest of the “Hamburg Foundation for Victims of Political Persecution” for one year ending in summer 2003. In autumn of the same year, she returned to Germany to be the first to receive the newly founded Johann Philipp Palm Prize for Freedom of Speech and the Press. “Reporters without Borders” recommended her for the prize, which was initiated by the Palm Foundation in order to contribute to establishing and protecting freedom of speech and the press domestically and abroad as a necessary precondition for democracy. At the end of November she will return to Tunisia.

Ms. Ben Sedrine, you are visiting Germany for the second time. What have you gained during your visits here?

Sihem Ben Sedrine: When I was invited here last year by the Hamburg Foundation for Victims of Political Persecution, I initially wanted to decline. I don’t speak the language and I was afraid that my departure for Germany could resemble an exile, where I would not feel comfortable. My husband encouraged me to go by saying that we could return to our home at any time and that after many years of daily struggles, during which we had no vacation or weekends or even an evening free, it would be important to have a pause, a time for recovery in order to gather strength. And I have experienced Germany as a very friendly country, the people have been very kind to me and my stay has been good for me and enriching.

What awaits you – and your family – when you return to Tunisia? And will this trip have any effect on your future life?

Ben Sedrine: Of course my family suffers with me. We have suffered all forms of repression and that has had an effect on the whole family: loss of income [author’s note: her husband has also lost his job], limitations on our movements, the children are not allowed to meet friends, etc. But what my family suffers is nothing compared to what a regular citizen suffers. If I need something, I always protest and there are always international protests to support me. But unknown citizens have no such rights.

Laws are simply decoration, the authorities do what they want, lives can be completely destroyed, people can land in prison without having done anything, only because they protested against a policeman who insulted them. And if they then ask “Why did you insult me?,” they land in prison, are tortured, loose their work, their families are harassed, and all this for nothing!

And if my team and I are informed of this and find the victims in order to get information about the incident and permission to report it publicly, the answer is: No, no, no, please don’t, don’t speak about it, we are afraid that we would only suffer more brutal repression. They prefer to keep silent and hope that it will soon be over.

Concerning my return: Tunisia is a “soft dictatorship.” That is, they won’t put me in prison; that is too costly for them. They will make my life difficult. If I want to work somewhere, they will forbid others to work with me; every time I invite people to my home they will put policemen in front of the house. They can take away my passport, but these are small things that I have gotten used to. If you have already lived through something, you are less afraid the next time.

When you came to Germany for the first time, did you have the feeling that the people here are informed about Tunisia beyond palm trees and beaches?

Ben Sedrine: Unfortunately, no. We all know that German tourists with a number of one million make up the largest number of visitors to Tunisia. The Tunisians know the Germans well, but the Germans do not know the Tunisians very well. It is true, of course, that nothing is being done to open their eyes to the reality of the huge prison that has surrounded the Tunisian population once again. But I also see it as our task to make the reality of this country known, a country which presents itself to the tourists as an ideal world.

Isn’t it frustrating for you – coming from a country in which there is no freedom of speech and information – to realize that in Germany anyone can become informed, but they often don’t use the opportunity?

Ben Sedrine: It is important to know that the question of freedom and the press is in general a central question in all countries of the world. It is for example a fact that in democratic countries the press is a powerful instrument for opinion making. On the part of finance and economic groups, there is a tendency to gain control over the press. This is why questions of great interest, but which some people would rather not bring to light, are not represented in the media.

In authoritarian countries the media are already controlled and are used to spread propaganda; they thus deviate from their original function. But I won’t give up hope. During my long struggle I have come to realize again and again that whatever the limitations are that work against us, it is always possible to find the loopholes. And that is something that I found in Germany: lots of loopholes. So I don’t want to complain, because I have experienced aid and solidarity from German journalists who work for influential media and who have been able to open their columns to the subject of our struggle in Tunisia and to report to the German public about the struggles being fought in Tunisia.

In your opinion, what status does the internet have in Tunisia—despite the existing censorship—in the struggle for freedom of speech and the press?

Ben Sedrine: You know, I am for non-violence; I do not believe that war or violence can solve problems. My only weapon against the dictatorship is the unveiling of dictatorial acts. I and many other Tunisian dissidents are trying to rip open the straightjackets in which Tunisian citizens are bound up. Our only weapon consists of making public the abuses of human rights, political rights, personal liberties, and the law by those who rule our country.

One must be aware that in Tunisia you have no freedom of assembly, no freedom of the press, not a single independent newspaper at the moment, and of course no free radio or television; the only holes that one can find are in the internet. Thanks to the Internet and also the backing of NGOs fighting for human rights and freedom of the press, our voice made its way into the international arena.

Of course our government didn’t just sit quietly with their hands in their lap, nothing is more irritating than that which bruises their good image. So they founded the ATC, the Agence Tunisienne de Communication Extérieure (Tunisian Agency for Foreign Communication). This is a propaganda agency that has an enormous budget abroad with which to buy journalists, to invite foreign journalists and decision-makers to Tunisian, and by doing so to they try to polish their image.

At home of course they reacted with repression: all those who oppose the regime are persecuted, there are trials, prison sentences, physical aggression by the police, who are constantly watching us, people lose their jobs, etc.

Given these circumstances, what do you estimate are the chances that you will be able to continue your newspaper “Kalima”?

Ben Sedrine: Our newspaper is produced by a team in Tunisia because the research is carried out in Tunisia and the information is gathered there. But in Tunisia we have information police whose job it is to cut off dissident’s access to the internet. So we can’t feed the latest edition of our newspaper into the website from Tunisia.

Recently, I have been leaving the country when the new content is ready, and I carry the texts with me well hidden on a CD-Rom in order to upload them from Germany onto our website. In fact, when I return we will be confronted with this problem again and we have to find other solutions. But I have not given up hope that one will always find a solution even in the most futile situations.

How do you rate the possibility of exerting pressure on the Tunisian government via the Tunisian-European Partnership Agreement?

Ben Sedrine: Beyond the effects on the European media, the European Parliament formulated an opinion. In the years 2000 and 2001 three resolutions were passed condemning the human rights abuses of the Tunisian government. The United Nations also did the same in three special reports: one on torture, one on freedom of speech, and one on the independence of the judiciary. In their reports they condemned the Tunisian government for their abuses. That was between 2000 and 2001.

Unfortunately all these voices have fallen silent since September 11th, 2001. Back then, the pressure on the Tunisian government had begun to bear fruit, they began to promise reforms, more freedom of the press and the right to assemble freely; but now all organizations that we belong to are banned.

Since September 11th, the Tunisian government, which had promised the UN, the European Parliament, and the Americans to change things for the better, now feel themselves to be free of all obligations and free to carry on with the repression. There were no changes because neither Europe nor America nor the UN – no one – speaks about the abuses of liberty in Tunisian anymore; now they only speak of the anti-terror war and the government of Ben Ali presents itself as its champion.

Is there a binding contract on the basis of which the EU can demand the respect of human rights in Tunisia?

Ben Sedrine: Tunisia signed a partnership treaty with Europe. This treaty states in Article 2 that it is imperative that Europe and Tunisia both respect the principles of democracy and human rights. Numerous reports by the many Tunisian and international NGOs regularly reach the European Commission, we send reports about abuses of the treaty to the Council of Europe. Europe does not hold to Article 2 of the Barcelona treaty, because otherwise it would demand accountability for these abuses.

On September 30 of last year there was a Tunisian-European meeting on this partnership treaty in order to take stock of the partnership. We sent a delegation to the European Parliament in order to address the situation before the meeting, so that at least within the context of this meeting protest could be raised. I can show you: Everything was said to be fine, no complaints to the Tunisian government!

A final question: The Iranian Shirin Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize. To what extent do you think such prizes send out a signal to those who are fighting in many countries for human rights, especially to women in Islamic countries?

Ben Sedrine: The Nobel Prize for Shirin Ebadi was a very strong signal for Muslim women who are fighting for human rights. It makes clear that these values are universal values and not just values of the West that are brought over to the Orient. For us it is thus a very important signal that will help in the reconciliation of South and North, the Islamic world and the Judeo-Christian world, it is an instrument of solidarity.

Ms. Ben Sedrine, I thank you for this interview and I wish you all the best.

Interview: Silvia Kuske

© Qantara.de 2003

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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