Sofiane Chourabi, a Tunisian journalist emblematic of Tunisia’s struggle for free speech and media independence, and his cameraman, Nadhir Ktari, have been missing since an unidentified group reportedly seized them in Libya last September.
On April 29, Libyan officials in the internationally recognized government announced that “terrorist elements” had executed the two men in addition to a crew from Libya’s al-Barqa Television, based, they said, on the confessions of captured militants. Tunisia’s National Union of Journalists has insisted on seeing proof of their death before accepting the news.
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. In 2014, 61 journalists were killed worldwide, almost half of them in the Middle East, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Syria alone about 20 are currently missing.
Chourabi worked for two low-circulation Tunisian opposition newspapers in the 2000s. But it was in the later years of that decade that he gained prominence as a blogger who defied the authoritarian regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, openly posting his name and picture beside his online tirades against the government’s censorship of the media and the web.
Chourabi, born in Slimane in 1982, did not confine himself to virtual activism. When the young street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in December 2010 to protest police harassment, Chourabi was among the first journalists to cover the street protests that erupted. That made him a key player in the synergism between social media and the popular uprising that toppled Ben Ali weeks later.
After the uprising, Chourabi became a familiar television commentator and sturdy defender of secularism as a resurgent Islamist party and Salafists asserted themselves. When a court in 2012 sentenced an atheist, Jabeur Mejri, to seven years in prison for a blog post deemed to mock Islam, Chourabi commented:
“Tunisia’s new rulers, who have experienced the pain of prisons and detention centers, and suffered from constant surveillance, are the ones who now bless throwing a young man in prison merely for expressing his opinion.”
In 2012, police arrested Chourabi and a friend for drinking alcohol on a beach. Some saw the arrest as a reprisal for his critical views and reporting on the Islamist-led interim government. The court convicted and fined them for “public drunkenness” and “offending public morals.”
Chourabi took on reporting assignments for France 24 television among others, and developed a passion for investigative reporting, of which Tunisia’s state-cowed media had no tradition. In May 2013, Ettounsiyya TV aired a piece of critical reporting by Chourabi that Tunisia’s security forces disputed, especially its contention that smugglers were able to operate virtually unchallenged across the Tunisian-Algerian border.
In June 2013, an investigative judge questioned Chourabi on charges stemming from this piece, of “complicity in disseminating false information likely to harm the public order” and “falsely alleging a crime.” The case remains pending, according to Souhaib Bahri, Chourabi’s lawyer.
Lina Ben Mhenni, Chourabi’s friend and fellow blogger, describes him as fearless. This is perhaps the trait that had led him in 2010, to rush to Sidi Bouzid shortly after the young street vendor set himself on fire, and to strife-torn Libya in September 2014. The trip was for First TV, a new, independent broadcaster for which Chourabi produced the “Dossiyet” (Files) program. He intended to investigate the impact of Libya’s internal strife on its economic relations with Tunisia, the station’s deputy director, Raouf Saad, told us.
Tunisia had by then adopted a new constitution and was soon to hold its first democratic elections, whereas Libya’s transition was in chaos. The optimism in Libya generated by the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 has long since evaporated amid continuing conflict and division.
Two rival governments claim legitimacy, armed militias control parts of the country, and the judicial system is dysfunctional. These conditions have allowed armed groups, including some that claim allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), to grow and flourish and commit appalling crimes, such as abduction and broadcasting beheadings of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians.
Chourabi and Ktari, his cameraman, headed to Libya at a time when few western journalists travelled there anymore, due to the security situation and diminished interest abroad in the country. But for the Tunisian media, ignoring Libya was not an option: the two countries share historic links, economic ties, and a long, porous border.
News reports suggest that the security situation in Libya has allowed weapons to flow easily across the border and afforded a rear base for Tunisian armed groups that have carried out killings both in Libya and at home.
Ktari started working as a cameraman in 2011, first for Nessma TV, then Tounesna TV. “I recommended Ktari to Sofiane because he needed a cameraman who was courageous to accompany him,” Oussama Saafi, a journalist at first TV, told us.
The details of what happened to Chourabi and Ktari when they reached Libya remain sketchy. They first lost touch with the TV station on 3 September, near the city of Brega, apparently held by unknown forces that freed them on 7 September. But only a day later, an unidentified group seized them near Ajdabiya, according to the Facebook page of Tunisia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, and since then, their fate has remained uncertain.
On January 8, a website linked to armed groups published a statement purportedly issued by the “Province of Barqa,” a group that claims allegiance to Islamic State, announcing that it had executed Chourabi and Ktari because they “worked for a satellite station that fought religion.”
The communiqué included photos of the two men but provided no evidence of their deaths. Libyan and Tunisian officials have made vague statements since January affirming their efforts on behalf of Chourabi and Ktari, but no further information surfaced until April 29.
Meanwhile, the situation for Libyan journalists grows increasingly precarious: unidentified assailants have killed nine of them in separate incidents since 2013, including Muftah al-Qatrani, a television journalist gunned down in Bengazi on April 23. If the Libyan statement of April 29 proves accurate, unidentified militants have also killed a crew from Barqa television consisting of four Libyans and one Egyptian.
Around Tunis, billboards showing their faces proclaim, “Sofiane Chourabi, Nadhir Ktari, our hearts are with you.” Libyan and Tunisian authorities should spare no effort to verify the fate of the two journalists.
The two men are, in their way, the best of post-Ben Ali Tunisia: they risked their lives to inform the public at a time when the possibility of informing the public had finally become a reality.
Oumayma Ben Abdallah is the Tunisia research assistant and Eric Goldstein is the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.