Interviewed October 2011
Sihem Bensedrine was born in 1950. She studied at the University of Toulouse Le Mirail in France, from which she holds a degree in philosophy. Upon her return to Tunisia in 1977, she began work as a journalist, and became known as a critic of the regime.
As one of the most prominent Tunisian human rights activists, she paid a high price for her views. The regime continually harassed her and her family, pressuring employers to fire her, applying financial pressure, and slandering her in the media. Bensedrine’s family was under constant surveillance, received death threats, and was at times not allowed to travel outside the country. Due to these threats, she spent years as an exile, continuing to speak out on human rights and democracy issues in her homeland.
In 1998, she cofounded the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT). In 1999, she launched the “Kalima” website, which reported on conditions inside the country. Kalima later expanded to satellite radio broadcasting. She also cofounded the Observatory for Defense of Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC).
Bensidrine returned to Tunisia as the demonstrations against the Ben Ali regime gathered steam. She continues to advocate for freedom of the press and other human rights as Tunisia transitions to a new democratic system of government.
I started as a student of the university for trade union activities. But I started working on human rights as a member of an NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] since 1979. There was a big clash between the general trade union in Tunisia and the government of Bourguiba. And it was a big, big clash. And then there [were] a lot of people in prison. There [were] people assassinated, also. And we started working on this field defending people in prison.
Then Bourguiba allowed a bit more freedoms basic freedoms like freedom of association. And in 1977 two things happened in Tunisia. The first is Bourguiba allowed free media, independent media to be published. And he also allowed the first human rights NGO in the Arab world. It was the first one, the Tunisian League for Human Rights. And I was a member of this Tunisian league.
Also I started working as journalist in the first independent newspaper in Tunisia. It was very, very great moment I had in my life because I learned a lot about my country. You know, when you have this position of journalist, you can discover every day a new part of your society. And I-- it was very, very-- the most important experience of journalism in my life, it was this one and at the same time I was a human rights activist. I started working in both sides at the same time.
Tunisia is situated on the Mediterranean coastline. It has a population of fewer than 11 million people and is the smallest nation in North Africa in land area. In 2010 and 2011, it became the first of the Arab countries to revolt against decades of dictatorial rule, launching the Arab Spring and a wave of change across the region. Tunisia has a developing economy, focused largely on agriculture, tourism, and light industry.
Tunisia has been settled since ancient times. In the 10th century B.C., it was part of the Phoenician Empire. The city of Carthage, near the modern capital of Tunis, was established in the 9th century B.C. In 149 B.C., the Roman Empire conquered the Phoenicians. Islam was introduced to what is now Tunisia in the 7th century A.D., and the area formed part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1881, Tunisia became a protectorate of France. A strong French cultural element continues to this day.
In 1956, Habib Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence from France. His political party, later known as the Constitutional Democratic Rally, went on to dominate Tunisian politics for more than 50 years. Bourguiba’s Tunisia was a largely secular state and was viewed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world on women’s issues. In 1987, Bourguiba was replaced in a “bloodless coup” by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali continued many of Bourguiba’s policies, but ruled with an increasingly heavy hand. The Ben Ali regime was repressive and corrupt, with a dismal human rights record. The regime showed little tolerance for dissent, and lashed out at opposition voices in politics, civil society, and the media.
The Tunisian Revolution began in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest over harassment by a local official. Bouazizi’s act led to mass demonstrations across the country, protesting the lack of human rights, poor economic conditions, and corruption and nepotism in the Ben Ali regime. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country. On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections, forming a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and lead the country to general elections. The role of religion in society is among the most important issues facing the assembly and country.
Under the interim Constituent Assembly, Tunisia has experienced considerable political upheaval, but has begun to consolidate its democracy. There is a major fault line between Islamist and secular political forces. In 2013, several political assassinations resulted in widespread protests and demonstrators calling for the nation’s Islamist-led government to be removed. In January of 2014, after two years of debate, the Constituent Assembly ratified the nation’s new constitution. The constitution is considered progressive for the nation and has many human rights guarantees. With the ratification of the constitution, elections are scheduled for autumn 2014.
Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Tunisia as “partly free”. The nation received the following ratings on a scale with one being the most free and seven being the least: 3.5 as an overall freedom rating, a four in civil liberties and a three in political rights. Tunisia’s Internet and press were also categorized as “partly free” in subsequent Freedom House reports.