New York, May 16, 2000 —Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who went 43 days without food to protest government harassment, ended his hunger strike yesterday in Paris, where he has been staying since leaving Tunisia on May 4.
Ben Brik had vowed to continue his strike until Tunisian authorities released his brother Jalal Zoughlami, who was detained on April 26 after police attacked a group of supporters outside Ben Brik’s home in Tunis. Zoughlami was convicted on May 3 of assaulting a police officer and sentenced to three months in prison; however, authorities released him from jail shortly after Ben Brik ended his hunger strike. A court is expected to rule on Zoughlami’s appeal on Thursday, May 18.
Ben Brik, a crusading human-rights journalist, began his hunger strike on April 3 to protest the Tunisian government’s repeated attempts to intimidate him. In particular, he was protesting a travel ban imposed on him a year ago, when Tunisian airport police confiscated his passport as he was about to embark on a trip to Switzerland.
On May 1, authorities relented and issued Ben Brik a new passport. Two days later, a magistrate lifted a travel ban and dismissed a legal investigation. Ben Brik had been accused of publishing false information and offending public institutions in news articles that he wrote about human rights in Tunisia for the European newspapers La Tribune de Genève and Le Courier.
On May 4, Ben Brik departed for Paris where he continued his hunger strike on behalf of his jailed brother.
Ben Brik told CPJ today that he felt well despite having lost some 60 pounds during his fast. His six week hunger strike has focused international scrutiny on Tunisia’s dismal human rights record, in particular its muzzling of the press. It has even forced a normally muted ally, France, to voice criticism, albeit restrained.
Today in Paris, Ben Brik lashed out at what he described as Europe’s silence over President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s stifling of dissent. He accused Europe of acting as “a shield for Ben Ali, and for whitewashing his acts,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). “It is (the EU member states) who have guarded him … and to whom he owes his 13-year reign,” he said.
Ben Brik told CPJ that he intends to return to Tunisia on May 28, where he will resume his career as a journalist.
Over the last two years, the journalist has been the repeated target of Tunisian authorities’ wrath because of his coverage of human rights abuses in the European press. Ben Brik 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.