“I am not afraid”: In memory of Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni

Prominent Tunisian cyber-dissident and human rights defender died on January 27 at the age of 36 after fighting a long illness.

For years before the 2011 revolution that toppled the 23-year-old regime of Zine El Abidine, Lina Ben Mhenni relentlessly reported on what it meant for Tunisians to live under a dictatorship. Through her blog A Tunisian Girl, boldly using her real name, Lina documented violent crackdowns on protesters, arbitrary arrests of student activists and other human rights abuses, a dark spot on Tunisia’s carefully constructed image of white sand beaches and tourist resorts. Lina also helped organise early demonstrations against the government’s censorship of the media and the internet. As a result, in 2007 the Ben Ali regime banned her blog. 

But in 2010, as protests grew in size and momentum in the inner regions of Sidi Bouzid, Regueb and Kasserine leading up to the revolution, Lina was one of the very few bloggers to document the deadly crackdown on demonstrators. Reporting in Arabic, French and English, Lina interviewed families of the dead, visited the wounded in hospitals and photographed their injuries. Through these efforts, she became a vital source of information at a time when national media was controlled by the state and international media scrambled for access.

Gaining international recognition for her bravery and persistence, Lina was the recipient of many awards:El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize for her “fight for freedom” in October 2011, the Best Blog Award by Deutsche Welle Media Forum, the Rome Prize for Peace and Humanitarian Action, and the Minerva Prize for Political Action, to name a few.  Lina was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work on the frontlines of the Tunisian revolution.

In the years that followed the revolution, Lina continued to weigh in on the democratic transition and the persistent challenges to freedom of speech and human rights in Tunisia. She relentlessly called for accountability for the violence committed by security forces during the revolution. A strong ally and supporter of the injured, she relentlessly amplified their calls for compensation and adequate healthcare. Lina was a vocal feminist, actively advocating for women’s rights and equality. She denounced religious extremism and human rights abuses. 

In 2013, following the high-profile assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid, the authorities informed Lina that she was the “number 1 on a kill list” put together by religious hardliners. 

“As an activist I certainly experienced intimidation under the regime of Ben Ali,” wrote Lina in 2014. “But I have never received death threats and I didn’t have to be under the close protection of the police as it is the case today.”

“I feel our revolution has been confiscated and our dreams stolen. Despite this I remain hopeful for my country,” she continued.

Lina remained as hopeful as she was determined. In 2016, Lina launched a campaign with her father, Sadok Ben Mhenni, himself a human rights defender who had been imprisoned for his activism, to collect donated books and establish prison libraries, in an attempt to combat radicalization. Their project collected more than 45,000 books

“Lina Ben Mhenni was so many things to so many people. She was a cyber-dissident, an award-winning journalist, a human rights defender, a prize-winning athlete, a linguistics professor, a feminist leader, an author,” said Asma Ajroudi, IMS’ Tunisia Programme Manager.

“What bound all of her passions together was a love for truth, and the freedom to speak it. It is no exaggeration to say that her efforts inspired an entire generation to do the same.”