By Cheryl Gould, NBC News Senior Vice President
Once I returned home from a week in Tunisia as part of a two-person Committee to Protect Journalism (CPJ) delegation, I couldn't get Slim Boukhdir's plight off my mind, nor his wife Delinda's answer when I asked her if her husband would go back to reporting if he were released from prison: "Of course he will," she said, "And I support him in that."
As I reported here earlier this month, CPJ sent us there to focus attention on the treatment of journalists in Tunisia, which jails more reporters than any other country in the Arab world, even while its government enjoys good relations with the United States. But when our mission was over, Boukhdir remained a prisoner and we had no reason to believe that he would be released. I was haunted by the image of Delinda, a soft-spoken but strong woman, who has been raising two little children alone since her husband was thrown in prison.
Back in New York, I was sitting on a lunch-counter stool with an NBC friend, discussing my trip, when I got an email on my blackberry from Joel Campagna, my CPJ colleague and traveling companion during our visit to Tunisia:
"It's still unconfirmed, but I just got word that Boukhdir has been released from prison!"
A free man
I told Joel (and myself) that I would not react until it was confirmed. Too many times, early reports turn out to be simply wishful thinking or rumors, and the dashed hopes are worse than living with the situation at hand.
A few moments later, I got another email from Joel. This time, I grabbed my friend's arm and shouted with joy, "He's out of prison! They let him out of prison!" (I don't even want to think what the other lunch patrons were thinking at that point).
"How do you know for sure?" I wrote back. Joel replied that when he first heard the rumor, he called Delinda's cell phone, hoping she would have the facts. To his surprise, Slim Boukhdir himself answered the phone – a free man at last.
He recounted how his jailers gave him the news. A prison guard told him to pack his belongings immediately and leave the cell so that he could be transferred to another prison. But soon, Boukhdir realized something very different was happening. He was ushered to the front gate of the prison and was told that the Minister of Justice decided to release him.
Boukhdir got in a cab and asked to be taken home. On the road, he unexpectedly met Delinda coming from the opposite direction. She had jumped in a cab and headed to the prison as soon as she got word he'd been freed.
"Thank you CPJ, from the bottom of my heart," he told Joel. "I cannot thank you enough." Joel couldn't get a word in edgewise during their phone conversation, so effusive was his gratitude and praise.
"My release from jail is a victory for freedom and independent journalism," Boukhdir said. "The Tunisian regime managed through imprisonment to deprive me of the right to freedom of movement and to do my job while being among my loved ones.
"But it totally failed to break my will and determination to carry on with independent and ethical journalism," he continued. "It's shameful and degrading for the whole country to jail journalists for doing their job."
Congratulations, Boukhdir. You are now a free man and I have no doubt that you will continue courageously to do what journalists are supposed to do. Yes, it's shameful that you and your colleagues have to work under these threats and worse. But for now, we'll take small victories one at a time wherever and whenever we can get them.