New York, April 26, 2000 — Tunisian police assaulted a group of French press freedom advocates and journalists today when they attempted to visit Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who was in the 24th day of a hunger strike to protest two years of harassment by state authorities. Ben Brik later announced that he was suspending the strike for three days at the personal request of a visiting foreign dignitary.
Ben Brik, who is said to be seriously ill, intends to resume his hunger strike unless Tunisian authorities release his brother Jalal and two other supporters who were arrested outside his house today and reportedly charged with assaulting security agents and blocking a public thoroughfare.
Early today, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) announced that uniformed and plainclothes Tunisian police had attacked members of an RSF delegation and three French journalists who were attempting to visit Ben Brik at his home in Tunis. They included RSF’s secretary general, Robert Menard, the group’s North Africa researcher, Virginie Locussol, and three French journalists: Julia Ficatier of the daily La Croix, Angelique Bouin of the national radio station France Inter, and Isabelle Simon of the news agency Sipa Press. “We were insulted, roughed up, and hit, and the journalists’ materials, including camera and film, were seized or burned,” Menard told Agence France Presse (AFP).
“This disgraceful incident speaks volumes about the abject state of press freedom in Tunisia,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper. “It must be universally condemned. It’s past time that the international community takes note of these aggressions and voices its concern.” In Washington today, meanwhile, Tunisian embassy officials canceled a confirmed meeting with CPJ representatives to discuss Ben Brik’s case.
After the attack, AFP reported that the journalist had suspended his hunger strike for three days at the personal request of Marie-Claire Mendès-France, widow of the late French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France, who flew in from Paris to make the appeal.
On Monday, April 24th, Ben Brik was taken to a hospital in Tunis on advice from his doctors, who said his life was at risk. The journalist has reportedly lost 39 pounds. After a brief stay at the hospital he was taken to a Tunis clinic, and returned home last night. Police reportedly maintained a tight presence at the hospital and at his home.
Ben Brik launched his hunger strike on April 3 to protest the travel ban imposed on him by government authorities a year ago, when Tunisian airport police confiscated his passport as he was about to embark on a planned trip to Switzerland. Over the last two years, Ben Brik has been subjected to various forms of harassment in response to his coverage of human rights abuses in Tunisia for European news organizations. He has come under intense police surveillance, his phone and fax lines have been cut repeatedly, and he has been physically assaulted by men believed to be undercover police agents.
On April 3, a state prosecutor in Tunis summoned Ben Brik to hear charges of publishing false information and offending public institutions. The accusations stem from articles about Tunisia that he had published in the European newspapers La Tribune de Genève and Le Courier. The case is currently adjourned, and no date has yet been set for the next hearing. If convicted, Ben Brik faces up to nine years in prison in addition to unspecified fines.