TUNISIA: PROTEST NOT OVER! THE HUNGER STRIKE OF RAMZI BETTAIEB
Ramzi Bettaieb lies on a couch. He is being checked out physically and is now into day six of a hunger strike, tired but determined. To some of us Ramzi is better known as “Winston Smith” the name he adopted during the civil unrest in Tunisia which began at the end of 2010. He is our journalist friend from the region who blogged the revolution, captured the images and sent human rights campaigners daily updates on the uprising.
Ramzi is no stranger to suffering. The former political prisoner knows the feeling of an isolation cell and was unable to attend the funeral of his father in 2006 due to his condition. The ill treatment he experienced far from silencing him has acted as a motivator in his fight for justice for those struggling under an oppressive regime. The name of website NAWAAT became familiar to many in association with the revolution and later received awards http://nawaat.org/portail/
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who became President of Tunisia in 1987 and was responsible for crimes against his own people was ousted over a year ago on 14th January 2011. So why go on hunger strike now… aren’t things improving?
The reality is, many issues are far from resolved. There is a cynicism in Ramzi’s words as he conveys the following, “history repeats itself, the repressive system has not disappeared with Ben Ali, far from it, it continues more beautiful and the worst is that I see a willingness on the part of the power to conceal the truth to Tunisians.” He stresses that citizens that have suffered for decades have a right to know the truth and doesn’t feel this is happening.
Ramzi’s hunger strike began after he attempted to film legal proceedings set up to investigate the deaths of the martyrs, those killed during the uprising. His camera was seized by the military, hardly a sign of openness and free speech. Families of the martyrs had hoped that there would be a fair process and have demanded that military trials be replaced with an independent judiciary. There is a fear that the truth will once again be hidden, that there may be non -compliance of procedures and a clampdown on reporting. Ramzi feels the state has a responsibility, a duty to those who lost their lives and to their families to identify how and why each person was killed, without concealment of evidence.
The international media also have a duty to Ramzi and others like him who risked their lives to feed a press eager for information (once mainstream media finally cottoned on to the fact that a revolution was occurring). They were initially slow on the uptake regarding the Tunisian revolution as pointed out by Ramzi who realized that traditional media observes a “classic” position, one of “wait and prudence.” It is for the most part the independent media that are covering his hunger strike now. He states, “the campaign of solidarity with many of my fellow citizens, to support me in my hunger strike, reminded me of another: the bloggers and activists on the Net, which, since December 17, 2010 have continued to denounce, to fight and advocate for better in Tunisia, especially freedom of expression. The people that they wanted to divide by emphasizing differences have united around my case and I am proud.”
Today I looked back at the numerous emails exchanged between Ramzi and I and forwarded to journalist contacts in the UK. I focus on one in particular sent at 14.01 on 14th January 2011. It was sent to Lucy Crystal at BBC Newsnight. Her details were given to me by Susan Watts, a Newsnight reporter that I had worked with on a previous story. I had marked the email “urgent” the contents only made possible because of Ramzi Bettaieb.
I requested that Newsnight report on Tunisia explaining that “students are using Facebook to publicise the revolution”. I attached a recent article I had written for our website Asia Despatch http://www.asiadespatch.com/2011/01/tunisia-civil-unrest-played-out-in-cyberspace/ (again with the help of Ramzi) saying that after I wrote this article on the demonstrations and human rights abuses there, I began to receive more film footage out of Tunisia showing dead and dying students.
I pointed Lucy in the direction of material received from a “Winston Smith” via Facebook and stated the following:-
“Yesterday I received graphic film footage direct from Tunisia which showed dead and dying young men in hospital with medical and nursing staff desperately trying to revive them and treat gunshot wounds which were clearly visible to the stomach, head, arms, legs and neck. One man lay on a table with his brain almost out of his skull, in another film a youth lay on a table with a large pool of blood covering the emergency room floor. Another young man ashen and groaning lay waiting for treatment, gaping leg wound exposing bone. Teenagers gathered in hospital corridors with injured teenagers propped against walls sitting on the floor crying.
I was also sent film of demonstrations around the country one showed a group of lawyers being surrounded. In other footage I could see thousands of people holding the national flag and singing the national anthem of Tunisia humat al hima (defenders of the homeland), in other footage youths were being beaten with sticks, others lifted up shirts to show that they had been allegedly tortured, gunfire could be heard and cars were set alight.
I am concerned that my Facebook site is being blocked for covering the Jasmine revolution and I fear for my contacts over there. There is a big demonstration today I was due to receive film footage but can no longer access my internet account. I hope the international media will give Tunisia more coverage as the demonstrations have been going on for a month now and the main news channels in the UK and US have been slow to pick up on the seriousness of the situation”
Fortunately people listened and a programme on Tunisia went out that night on Newsnight…
So I call on all reporters in 2012 to continue their job, let the world know that the Tunisian revolution is not finished yet. There are ongoing demonstrations, economic tensions and concerns over civil liberties. Ramzi Bettaieb hasn’t stopped fighting for justice and is still very much on the job… and while reporters deliberate on whether to cover his story, a hunger striker grows weak from waiting.
Carol Grayson is an independent UK researcher/writer/campaigner on global health/human rights awarded ESRC Michael Young Prize 2009 and executive producer of Oscar nominated documentary Incident in New Baghdad http://www.incidentinnewbaghdad.com/