Tunisia: An interview with Tunisian journalist and human rights activist Souhayr Belhassen

"Denunciation is not enough. When a press release cannot be published in any newspaper, how can information circulate?"
The Tunisian journalist Souhayr Belhassen, aged 63, became the first Arab president of the International Federation for Human Rights on 26 April 2007. She is also the first woman to occupy this post. To mark the occasion, APN talked to Souhayr Belhassen about freedom of expression in the Arab world and her own country, where her writing has not always met with the government's approval.
Under President Bourguiba's rule, her biography of this head of state was censured until the advent of Ben Ali. Under the political strongman of Carthage she was forced to go into exile for 5 years. At the end of this period, she returned to Tunisia in 1998 and founded 7 sur 7, a cultural weekly, which was banned the same year it was created. But nothing diminishes the militancy of this lady, who has been vice-president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights since 2000.

APN: How did the Tunisian government react to your appointment?
SB: A short time after my election, the Tunisian League for Human Rights celebrated its 30th anniversary. That was on 7 May 2007. We wanted to celebrate this event, but couldn't find a hotel in Tunis because they all seemed to be "fully booked". For over a year the Tunisian League for Human Rights has been banned from holding any public gatherings. All our branches are surrounded by police officers and we have no access to them. Plaintiffs have no access to our central premises, so our activities are extremely limited. We had been trying to organise our conference ever since 2003, but haven't even been able to convene for four years. Paradoxically, to mark our 30th anniversary, the authorities allowed us to hold this event at our own premises. We were consequently able to receive all of our members. And that is something special. Surprisingly, the daily publications that claim to be independent - Assabah, Le Temps and Réalités - interviewed me to mark my appointment and published the article on their front pages. I see all of these developments as a positive sign.

APN: Your post has a universal mandate, but how can your appointment at the head of the IFHR benefit freedom of speech in Tunisia and in the Arab world?
SB: My election has put Tunisia in the spotlight and we are benefiting from this. The half-opening that I referred to, and I say half-opening because many of our branches are still surrounded by the police, is one positive side-effect. The fact that I am Tunisian and president of the IFHR draws even more attention to the country. Yet I do not consider myself as strictly Tunisian. I am a citizen of the world. All of the leagues and countries are equal. I will naturally remain specially aware of the Tunisian situation, but Tunisia will have no advantage over other countries. As far as the Arab world is concerned, this appointment is very important. It honours a woman from one of the world's regions that discriminates the most against women and this is hugely symbolic. It is also one of the least democratic regions on earth. Democratic processes have taken root in all other parts of the world apart from this region. Appointing a woman from the Arab-Muslim world translates a desire to see democratic processes advance in this region. We at the IFHR are encouraging these processes in the Maghreb, the Middle East and the Gulf. Female emancipation, justice and the ratification of the International Criminal Court and electoral processes are the three special themes of the leagues in our regions.

APN: What about freedom of speech in this region?
SB: In Africa and the Maghreb /Middle East area, Tunisia is a country that wins the Golden Palm for repression of freedom of expression. When the UN dare organise the World Summit on the Information Society in this country in 2005, they expected the situation to improve, but quite the opposite occurred. We saw a deterioration.

Entire generations, everyone under the age of thirty, have never known a free press. The most serious problem is the regression in mentalities generated by press repression. Today's young people have no critical spirit, no objective detachment with regards to their country's situation and their region. They only watch Arab satellite channels. Most of these channels advocate violent seizure of power and protest. And they no longer know the meaning of peaceful protest.

The foundation of press freedom today is to reastablish protesting, oppositional and non-violent freedom of expression. How can we achieve this? The newspapers need to use the spaces left free, as in Egypt. And that is possible thanks to the internet. Although access to some sites is blocked, information nevertheless circulates. But not everyone has internet access. Today's young people no longer harbour a spirit of openness and tolerance. This spirit can only come from a local press that discusses local situations and launches debates, not from foreign imported newspapers. The only way out of this serious situation is through debate. But denunciation is not enough. When a press release cannot be published in any newspaper, how can information circulate?

On the other hand, we must also condemn the initiatives of certain organizations financed by the European Union. They organize training courses for journalists, but work with journalists from inside the system. Such journalists obey the arbitrary decisions of the authorities, although they should not give in to their wishes. If these training schemes merely promote censorship, then they are not worth running.

APN: You were a journalist for Jeune Afrique, the Reuters news agency and also founded a weekly called 7 sur 7. It was censored following the publication of an article of Bourguiba. Can you ever see yourself heading a newspaper again?
SB: There are margins that must exploited. I did it and failed. I remain full of admiration for those people in Morocco and Algeria who appropriate these gaps and try to enlarge such spaces of freedom. That is how we move forward. And as far as I am concerned, my attempt ended in failure. To move on, I had to make a fresh start.

APN: You finished with journalism to devote yourself to human rights. Do you see any overlap between the two areas?
SB: As a journalist you investigate, publish and denounce. And at the IFHR and in the national leagues we do the same thing. We investigate. We give a voice to those who are silenced, we make our reports public and we make denunciations. To be a journalist, at least how I tried to do the job, and to defend human rights are two very similar and coherent activities.

APN: What advice would you give to a young journalist in an Arab country?
SB: Fight.

12 June 2007

Source: Arab Press Network