Journalist and human rights activist jailed after London TV appearance

New York, June 28, 2001 — CPJ is gravely concerned about the recent arrest of Tunisian human rights activist and journalist Sihem Bensendrine, apparently for criticizing the regime of President Zine Al-Abdine Ben Ali during a London television appearance.

Bensendrine is the spokeswoman for the non-governmental National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and the editor of an Internet magazine called Kalima. On June 17, she took part in a television debate about Tunisian human rights on Al Mustaqilla, a London-based Arabic television station owned by émigré Tunisian dissident Mohammed El Hachimi Hamdi.

Tunisian police detained Bensendrine at the airport when she returned to the capital, Tunis, on June 26, 2001. That same day, according to her lawyer, Radiah Nasrwai, Bensendrine was charged with undermining the authority of the judiciary and spreading false information with the aim of undermining public authority. She was brought before an examining judge, who ordered her incarcerated.

Following her arrest, Nasrawi said, Bensendrine was missing for more than five hours before anyone knew what had happened to her.

Undermining the authority of the judiciary carries a penalty of up to six months imprisonment and a 1000 dinar (US$660) fine. The false information charge carries a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine of 1000 dinars.

“We call on Tunisian authorities to release Sihem Bensendrine at once and to drop all charges against her,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Jailing someone for expressing her political views on the air threatens all working journalists and can only stifle free expression, which the Tunisian government says is a right afforded to all its citizens.”

Bensendrine is currently being held at the Manouba prison for women, outside Tunis. Her trial is scheduled for July 5.

President Ben Ali has appeared four years running on CPJ’s annual list of the 10 Worst Enemies of the Press. His government continues to suppress all forms of opposition to the regime, including journalism and media commentary.