Free to travel but still on hunger strike, Tunisian journalist arrives in France for medical care

Click here to read more about press freedom conditions in TUNISIA.

New York, May 5, 2000 — Tunisian authorities lifted a travel ban imposed on journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who arrived in France yesterday. But Ben Brik vowed to continue his 33-day hunger strike until his brother is freed from government custody, the Committee to Protect Journalists has learned.

Ben Brik began his hunger strike on April 3 to protest government harassment including a travel ban imposed on him by authorities a year ago, when Tunisian airport police confiscated his passport as he was about to embark on a planned trip to Switzerland. On April 26, Tunisian police violently attacked a group of supporters outside Ben Brik’s home, including his brother Jalal Zoughlami, who was also detained.

Ben Brik temporarily suspended his hunger strike that same day 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. But with his brother still detained two days later, he resumed his protest.

On May 1, an examining magistrate dismissed a judicial investigation launched against Ben Brik on April 3. The journalist was accused of publishing false information and offending public institutions in news articles he wrote about human rights in Tunisia for the European newspapers La Tribune de Genève and Le Courier. At Wednesday’s hearing, the magistrate lifted a prior judicial order prohibiting Ben Brik from travelling outside the country, thus allowing him to leave for France yesterday.

Despite the lifting of the travel ban, Ben Brik has vowed to continue his 33 day old hunger strike in France until his recently imprisoned brother is released, his lawyer Chawki Tabib told CPJ. Ben Brik, who has reportedly lost 50 pounds (23 kgs.) and is in deteriorating health, was taken yesterday to La Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris where he is undergoing medical tests.

Over the last two years, Ben Brik has been a repeated target of Tunisian authorities 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 May 3, CPJ named Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali one of the ten worst Enemies of the Press for the third consecutive year.

That same day, Ben Brik’s brother Zoughlami was sentenced to three months in prison by a Tunisian court for allegedly assaulting police officers and inciting people to break the law. Zoughlami is also reportedly on hunger strike in prison.