After being sentenced to a year in prison last December for "insulting a civil servant in the performance of his duties," "indecent behaviour," and "refusal to present identification" following a police request, Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdir reclaimed his freedom on 21 July. Just weeks after his release from Sfax prison, the free-expression activist spoke exclusively with APN, reaffirming his commitment to uncovering the truth, whatever it may be.
Boukhdir, 39, is a correspondent for the London-based, Pan Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi and for satellite television station Al-Arabiya's online edition. He is also a regular contributor to numerous websites, including Tunisnews and Kantara.
APN: In carrying out your work as a journalist, were you aware that your articles could land you in prison?
SB: It had become quite clear to me these last few years that the regime wanted to see me in jail. Many of my friends who are human rights activists feared I would be arrested. For years now Ben Ali's regime has used every possible means of oppression, repression and persecution to try to deter me from writing things that were not in line with their directives. My arrest was merely the last episode in a long and dramatic saga of harassment and persecution.
When you write with a free pen in a country ruled by a dictator you eventually get thrown in jail. Articles that expose government corruption, express an opinion at odds with the government line or denounce human rights abuses are all taboo in the eyes of the Tunisian establishment, whose response to free expression is invariably to repress and imprison. If I am not the first journalist to suffer such a fate, I hope to be the last.
APN: Will the months you spent in prison influence how you perceive your work?
SB: I am not prepared to renounce either my frankness or my impartiality. I would not have a clear conscience if I were to stray from my code of ethics or suppress the truth. I was, I am and I will be prepared to pay the price of speaking freely. I am bound by a code of ethics to write objectively and impartially and no amount of money will silence my pen. No one forces you to become a journalist but if you chose this profession you have an obligation to respect its code of ethics and to uncover the truth, to not turn away from it or side with public opinion, however heavy the cost may be.
APN: How are you doing after spending months in prison in humiliating conditions?
SB: After eight months in prison in conditions that were, to say the least, appalling, I am physically exhausted. I have difficulty breathing and suffer from sudden drops in blood pressure, not to mention other complications. Despite my health problems, which I know I can overcome, and the distress I suffered during my time in solitary confinement, the regime has not got the better of even a tiny fraction of my resolve to continue the fight for a free press and a free citizenry in my country. If I have to, I will give my life for this freedom.
APN: What do you make of the evolution of free expression in Tunisia?
SB: Free expression simply does not exist in Tunisia so to speak of an evolution is a bit of an overstatement. There is an oppressive arsenal in place that muzzles all divergent sources of opinion. All Internet sites offering anything other than the government line are blocked. The editorial press has been all but confiscated. The Interior Ministry retains strict control over the granting of all new publishing licences so only those papers that glorify the regime are allowed to publish. The state-owned radio and television stations rarely give airtime to divergent views.
Independent journalists are marginalized, shut out and choked financially. When the regime is not forcing them into "voluntary" exile, it's throwing them in jail.
The list of taboo subjects gets longer every day: it now includes football and various other issues that have little to do with politics or economics. You can no longer write about environmental issues, for instance. It is also forbidden to talk about the number of victims of a natural disaster such as a flood. And it is strictly prohibited to bring up freedom of expression in a country that has taken away all public freedoms and that can speak only the language of police repression to its journalists, its intellectuals and its elite. Despite these obstacles, we continue our fight for a free and independent press in Tunisia and for the right of all citizens to speak freely, as provided by the Constitution of this country.