Like so many of her friends, colleagues, and admirers around the world, we were devastated to hear of the death of Lina Ben Mhenni at age 36, following a long illness. The Tunisian blogger, activist, athlete, and linguistics lecturer was a friend to several of us.
Amidst a community of determined and brilliant activists, Lina stood out for her compassion, and her relentless dedication to advocating for freedom of expression and women’s and human rights. She was humble but bold, using her real name online to advocate for democracy and human rights at a time when doing so in Tunisia was a great risk.
A lover of language, Lina studied linguistics and briefly taught Arabic as a Fulbright scholar at Tufts University in the late 2000s, which is where we first met. The recipient of a kidney transplant, Lina was an athlete who won silver medals three years in a row at the World Transplant Games. She moved back to Tunisia not long before the revolution and took a post teaching linguistics.
Lina was vocal against Internet censorship, documenting Tunisia’s extensive censorship regime for Global Voices. In May 2010, she was a core part of a group that organized a protest against their government’s censorship of media and the Internet.
Following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi—the first spark of the Tunisian revolution—Lina traveled to Sidi Bouzid to cover the protests on her blog, A Tunisian Girl. At that time, press freedom in the country was so suppressed that reports from bloggers were the only lens through which the world could witness the events. She was later the only blogger to travel to Kasserine after government forces massacred protesters in the interior town. Lina’s reports informed both Tunisians and the international media, which republished and cited her work extensively
After the revolution succeeded in ousting President Ben Ali, Lina continued to play a prominent role in her country’s rebuilding, and in 2011, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor which she called “ a very nice surprise” but which brought her unwanted attention with which she struggled. Despite the tragedies and stumbling blocks that she witnessed in Tunisia, she remained an optimist and believed that the revolution was the beginning of a global wave of protest.
Over the years, Lina stood firm in her view that “people, not online networks” were at the core of the uprising, but nevertheless valued the power that the Internet gave to ordinary citizens. Digital activism, in Lina’s words, was “an efficient tool against censorship, and dictatorship,” but she fundamentally believed that “action in the digital world must be combined with actions in the real world.”
Rima Sghaier, the Tunisian activist whom we recently interviewed for Speaking Freely, said in a text message that Lina “has always been a hero, and I’ve looked up to her courage before and after the revolution.”
In her final years—despite a struggle with lupus about which she spoke openly on social media—she remained a dedicated activist, despite her consistent rejection of the label. She spoke out about the plight of Syrians, collected books for prisoners, documented stories of torture from her country’s past, advocated for better healthcare in Tunisia, and remained a steadfast believer in freedom of expression. She also published several books, including a memoir of her time as a blogger during the revolution. Activists from her community say she was generous with her time and support for new projects until the end.
Lina, your dedication to free expression and your tireless dedication to human rights will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, dear friend.