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Tunisia: Free Expression Protest

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 17, 2005 (051117)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Tunisia, which is currently hosting the World Summit on the Information Society, is one of the most advanced African countries in provision of information infrastructure. But it also systematically represses internal dissent and blocks access to websites critical of the government. As the summit opened this week, Tunisian human rights activists were on hunger strike and international activists were protesting the government's refusal to allow freedom of expression.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a message from human rights campaigners on hunger strike in Tunisia, and excerpts from a background report from the Tunisia Monitoring Goup on the issues of freedom of expression in Tunisia.

For up-to-date information on the hunger strike and freedom of expression issues in Tunisia, see http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg Additional detailed background can be found in a report by Amnesty International released on November 14
(http://web.amnesty.org/library/print/ENGMDE300192005).

For an earlier AfricaFocus Bulletin on Tunisia, with additional references for background information, visit http://www.africafocus.org/country/tunisia.php.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Message from the Hunger Strikers
To the World Summit on the Information Society

November 16, 2005

[Source for this statement and additional background information is the Tunisia Monitoring Group. This is a coalition of 14 organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 14 organisations are all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of 64 national, regional and international organisations committed to defending the right to freedom of expression. See http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg]

Mr. Secretary General of the United Nations

As representatives of political parties and civil society associations, on hunger strike for rights and freedoms in Tunisia, we welcome you and wish you success in your work.

It is a great honour for us that the international community chose Tunisia to host a world conference concerning the great problems presented by the development of new technologies, such as the digital divide between nations of the North and those of the South and the governance of the Internet on a world scale.

The bridging of the digital divide poses problems not only of a financial nature. The Declaration of Principles and the Action Plan of the first WSIS phase do not fail to underline the importance of freedom of expression and opinion such as the role of television and broadcasting in reducing this divide. Nor do they fail to insist on the imperative of open access to all levels of information technologies in the struggle against poverty, ignorance and under-development.

In this regard we would like to inform you that we have been observing a hunger strike for thirty days in order to reclaim three fundamental objectives: freedom of association, freedom of the press and the liberation of political prisoners. The Internet is censored, the media are monopolized by a party in power for the past 50 years; the constitution of parties and associations, as well as newspaper publishing, are subject to the discretion of the Minister of the Interior. No effective judicial control exists in a country where judicial power itself is submissive to the executive power. It is not surprising in these conditions that thousands of political prisoners, of every tendency, have known the pangs of torture, imprisonment and ill treatment. Hundreds of them languish in prisons, exposed to the most inhuman treatment and without hope of seeing their martyrdom coming to an end for many long years.

The United Nations has not ceased to draw the attention of the Tunisian government concerning the deplorable state in which Tunisia is confined, a country that is peaceful, open to liberal traditions and whose elites enjoy a high level of education and culture. This situation is not only prejudicial to human dignity, it is also contrary to the imperatives of good governance. It constitutes, for this reason, the principle obstacle to the pursuit of our economic and social progress in a globalized world where competition and human intelligence represent the principle source of wealth and progress.

Mr. Secretary General,

We consider the first condition for the success of your work and for the acceptance of your programmes rests in harmonizing words and actions. Our wish is to see you link beautiful declarations concerning the intention to adopt concrete measures to effectively reduce the digital divide with an obligation for States which still do not respect human rights to honour their international commitments and to guarantee to their citizens fundamental freedoms and rights, written in their own constitutions. Democracy is not a mere matter of internal politics but an imperative of stability, peace and international cooperation.

In repeating our sincere wishes of success, please accept, Mr. Secretary General, our respectful greetings.

Tunis, November 16, 2005

The hunger strikers:

Ahmed Njib Chebbi: Secretary General of the Progressive Democratic Party
Hamma Hammami: spokesperson of the Communist Workers Party of Tunisia
Abderraouf Ayadi: Vice-president of the Congress for the Republic
Lotfi Hajji: President, Union of Tunisian Journalists
Ayachi Hammami: President of the Mohammed Abbou Support Committee and Secretary General of the Tunis section of the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights
Samir Dilou: member of the board of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners
Mokhtar Yahyaoui: Judge and president of the Tunisian Centre for Judicial Independence
Mohamme Nouri: President, International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners


Report of the Tunisia Monitoring Group on the eve of WSIS Tunis 2005

Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Intensifies September 2005

[Excerpts. For full report visit http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg]

1. Introduction

:

This is the second report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) and follows the latest of a series of fact-finding missions to Tunisia by members of the group in the run to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). ...

The third mission, of nine TMG members, took place from 6-11 September 2005, and provided the basis for our first update on freedom of expression in Tunisia. This report is released two months before the WSIS Tunis Summit, 16-18 November 2005.

During the course of the three missions the TMG has now met with over 250 individuals and over 50 organisations and institutions including members of the government and opposition, public officials, government supported organisations, independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, publishers, librarians, private broadcasters and others. During each of our missions we have sought and been provided with access to government representatives. We welcome this dialogue and we have engaged in a frank and open exchange of views.

During the latest mission we met with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, the Minister of Communication Technologies and the Director of the External Communications Agency. In our report we acknowledge that some improvements have been made or have been promised, notably with respect to further private radio and television concessions, commitments to removal of the "dept legal" for periodicals and some improvement in prison conditions, but serious concerns remain with respect to all of these matters

However, since January 2005, we have disappointingly witnessed serious deterioration in other conditions related to freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly with respect to independent organisations, harassment of journalists and dissidents, independence of the judiciary, and the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer, Mohamed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles on the Internet. Cumulatively these changes lead us to conclude that the Tunisian government is seeking to further stifle dissent on the eve of the WSIS.

In such conditions, two months before WSIS Tunis 2005, Tunisia is not a suitable place to hold a United Nations World Summit.

We urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the recommendations we are making in this report and to show a real and immediate intent to remove the practices we have identified that violate international human rights laws and standards to which Tunisia is a signatory.

We call on the international community to take responsibility in holding Tunisia to account on its international obligations, to insist on real commitment to change and to ensure that independent voices in Tunisia are treated with the respect and tolerance of a rights-based democracy and not the abuses that we consider more characteristic of a police state.

In the following sections we set out the principal developments that we have observed since our first report.

About the Tunisia Monitoring Group

The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is a coalition of 14 organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 14 organisations are all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of 64 national, regional and international organizations committed to defending the right to freedom of expression.

The third mission of the TMG was composed of representatives of Article 19, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), International Publishers Association (IPA), Index on Censorship, PEN Norway, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

Other members of TMG are: Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, Journalistes en Danger (JED), Media Institute of South Africa (MISA), World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

B. FACTS ON THE GROUND

1. Prisoners of opinion

In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed imprisonment of individuals related to expression of their opinions or media activities.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to release Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr and hundreds of prisoners like him held for their religious and political beliefs and who never advocated or used violence We also recommended to end arbitrary administrative sanctions compelling journalist Abdellah Zouari to live nearly 500 km away from his wife and children and guarantee his basic right to freedom of movement and expression We further recommended release of the six cyber dissidents known as the Youth of Zarzis who, following unfair trials, have been sentences to heavy prison terms allegedly for using the Internet to commit terror attacks.

At the time of the second report we have witnessed no progress on our recommendations. On the contrary, the situation has worsened, in particular with the imprisonment of Mr. Mohamed Abbou.

We strongly reiterate these recommendations and furthermore we call for the urgent and immediate release of human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou.

2. Internet blocking

In the first report of IFEX TMG we observed blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafes.

We recommended to the Tunisia government to stop the practice of blocking websites and to cease putting Internet cafes and Internet users under police surveillance.

At the time of this second report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendations. ...

In January 2005 we undertook technical tests on selected Tunisian Internet Service Providers. We identified systematic Internet blocking which we believe to be operated using Smartfilter software. Internet blocking was applied to wide categories of sites, but also including specific Tunisian government defined URLs.

We have discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government representatives and with government supported civil society organisations. They confirmed to us that systematic Internet blocking takes place however government representatives asserted that blocking of political and information sites was due to their "terrorist" or "hate speech" content. Government officials were unable to describe any judicial or regulatory process that would enable such assertions to be legitimately challenged in law.

3. Censorship of books

In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed blocking of the distribution of books and publications.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to release banned books, end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression.

At the time of the second report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendation.

...

4. Independent organisations

In the first report of IFEX TMG we observed restrictions on the freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be legally established and to hold meetings.

We recommended to the Tunisia government to respect international standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and to grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups such as the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), the Tunis Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, the League of Free Writers, OLPEC, the International Association to Support Political Prisoners, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, and RAID-ATTAC-Tunisia.

At the time of this second report we have witnessed no progress on our recommendations. We have also witnessed serious new attacks on legally recognised but independent organisations including the Tunisian League of Human Rights and The Tunisian Association of Magistrates. We consider these attacks to represent a serious deterioration in respect for human rights.

We strongly reiterate the recommendation that the Tunisian government must take steps to allow independent organisations to establish without the requirement for prior political approval.

In addition we call on members of the ruling party, the RCD, to cease their attacks on the Tunisia League of Human Rights (LTDH). These attacks are quite clearly and deliberately intended to undermine an organisation which continues to vigorously defend human rights in Tunisia and whose independence should be respected.

...

5. Journalists and dissidents

In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment, intimidation and interception of communications.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to end harassment and assaults on human rights and political activists and their relatives and bring to justice those responsible for ordering these attacks and perpetrating them.

We also recommended action to be taken against interference by government employees in the privacy of human rights and political activists and end the withholding of their mail and email.

We further recommended to lift the arbitrary travel ban on human rights defenders and political activists, including Mokhtar Yahyaoui and Mohammed Nouri. At the time of the second report we have witnessed no progress on our recommendations. On the contrary the situation has worsened in particular in the increased harassment of independent Tunisian journalists.

We reiterate our very grave concern at systematic harassment of journalists, activists and dissidents, and urge that immediate steps be taken to remove political surveillance and harassment of individuals engaged in the legitimate defence of human rights and the right to freedom of expression.

...

6. Broadcast pluralism

In the first report of IFEX TMG we observed lack of pluralism in broadcast ownership, with only one private radio and one private TV broadcaster, both believed to be loyal supporters of President Ben Ali.

We recommended to the Tunisia government to p romote genuine pluralism in broadcast content and ownership including fair and transparent procedures for the award of radio and TV broadcast licences.

At the time of this second report we note and welcome the fact that a second private radio station has been licensed and that a private television station has also been authorised. We remain concerned however that there is no transparent licensing procedure in place and that the new services, while not under state ownership, have shown no signs of genuine independence. ...

7. Press Freedom

In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to take serious steps toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press.

At the time of the second report we have witnessed a step in the right direction (27 May 2005 announcement to abolish dpt lgal for periodicals, which awaits translation into law), but no other progress on our recommendations.

We therefore reiterate these recommendations.

Further we urge that the 27 May 2005 announcement to abolish dpt legal for periodicals be rapidly brought into law.

We also call on the Ministry of the Interior to respect Article 13 of the Tunisian Press Code enabling the establishment of newspapers and periodicals.

IFEX-TMG welcomed President Ben Ali's announcement of 27 May 2005 to end the "dpt legal" procedure for periodicals. Two opposition papers: the weekly Al-Mawkif of the Progressive Socialist Party and the monthly Attarik Al-Jedid of the Renewal Party reported some immediate improvements. Printers have been instructed to release these papers for distribution and not to keep them waiting for two or three days. The announcement is still to be put into law therefore the improvements noted so far reflect only a more efficient operation of the existing system of prior censorship.

...

8. Torture

In the first report of the IFEX TMG we reported credible accounts of recent use of torture by the security services with impunity.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to allow independent investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

At the time of the second report we have witnessed some progress on prison conditions, but no real progress on our main recommendation. Despite progress, prison conditions also remain a source of major concern.

We therefore restate the February recommendation and urge that the Tunisian government take every effort to completely eliminate the practice of torture by the security services.

President Ben Ali announced in April 2005 a decision to ease the inhumane conditions inflicted for years on political prisoners. In particular he announced the ending of the practice of involuntary solitary confinement, imposed on prisoners like journalist Hamadi Jebali. In addition it was announced that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) would be allowed to visit Tunisian prisons. The TMG and other international human rights groups have welcomed this.

On the other hand we are aware that prison conditions, in other respects, have not markedly improved and remain very poor. We continue to be gravely concerned that torture remains prevalent within the practices of the security services and that documented cases of torture are not being properly investigated or open to proper independent investigation.

C. Conclusions

As the WSIS draws nearer, attacks on freedom of expression and freedom of association have escalated since January 2005.

The circle of people targeted by such attacks has also widened. It is no longer the usual group of uncompromising human rights defenders, whom Tunisian authorities have been trying to silence by a number of means, including imprisonment, police harassment and confiscation of passports.

Journalists, magistrates, academics and others are making it clear that they too wish to assert and to exercise their right to the freedom of expression, particularly at a time when the country braces itself to host the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Many thought that the WSIS would be a good opportunity for the Tunisian government to start improving its human rights record and to loosen its grip over the media, the publishing industry and the Internet.

Despite a few positive steps forward, the Tunisia Monitoring Group concluded, during its third mission, that it would be extremely difficult to achieve real improvement in respect for the right to freedom of expression without an independent judiciary and respect for the rule of law, without an independent media to hold government and public servants to account, and without freedom of assembly and association.

Tunisians of different political trends who met with TMG members maintain that they deserve to live in a democracy and that progress in terms of rule of law and the right to freedom of expression needs to be backed by the international community. They argue that democratic countries in particular should speak out and insist that the privilege of hosting a United Nations World Summit requires a demonstrable commitment to upholding internationally agreed human rights.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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