- Another 25 organisations working for press freedom and human rights today protested the organisation of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia. Tunisia is ranked one of the world's most repressive countries regarding freedom of the press and of information flow, and the organisations urge the UN to change the venue of the Summit.
Twenty-five organisations, attending a freedom of expression meeting this week in Baku, Azerbaijan, today sent a protest letter to the UN, urging the world organisation to "change venue of WSIS unless Tunisian government makes substantial progress on respect for human rights and freedom of expression."
The organisations attenting last week's Baku meeting include influential international, regional and national press freedom and human rights groups. International groups include the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), organising the majority of the world's newpapers, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), organising thw world's journalist trade unions and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), coordinating worldwide press freedom works.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the 25 freedom of expression organisations "write to express our deep and continuing concerns about plans to hold the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in 2005." The Tunisian capital was not fit to host a summit on the world-wide information industry, which includes the press, they hold.
Basic human rights, including the right to free expression, continue to be systematically violated in Tunisia. "The broadcast media remain dominated by the state, websites and newspapers critical of the government have been blocked or are prevented from publishing, censorship of the Internet is routine practice and Tunisia continues to imprison its citizens for exercising their freedom of expression," the letter says.
- We urge the UN and member states to change the venue of the WSIS unless the government of Tunisia makes substantial progress on respect for human rights and freedom of expression, the 25 organisations write. They add a list of basic and essential benchmarks for progress before they consider Tunisia fit to organise the Summit.
The demands included the respect by Tunisian authorities for "the unfettered right of human rights and other civil society groups, including freedom of expression organisations, to operate freely in Tunisia." Many of the signatories on several occasions have documented grave violations of these rights in Tunisia.
In addition, the rights groups demanded the dropping of charges against and the release of individuals "jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression." Tunisian authorities needed to reform the media and communications environment, "including the right to establish independent media outlets and uncensored access to the Internet," the letter says.
The 25 organisations are also concerned about the the organisation of the Summit itself. They want a guarantee that all local and international human rights and other civil society organisations "are free to distribute and to receive material at and from the conference site without threat or practice of any form of censorship."
Finally, there were still no clear guarantees that local and international media would be able to report freely and without interference from the Summit, including directly from the conference site. The UN needed to insist that the Tunisian government make these guarantees concerning the Summit itself, the letter says, or Mr Annan must recommend to "reconsider to hold the WSIS in Tunisia."
The decision to let Tunisia host the Summit was controversial right from the start, as it was decided upon at the first WSIS in Geneva last year. Several media freedom organisations left the Geneva summit in protest, citing Tunisian human rights violations. The WSIS has been strongly criticised for not giving the media industry a voice and influence, while inviting all the world's dictators to decide upon a new world-wide information policy.
Several African press freedom organisations were among thos signing today's protest letter to Mr Annan. These include the Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and the Kinshasa-based Journaliste en Danger (JED). These regional press freedom organisations have no parallell in North Africa.
The Tunisian press union was not represented at the Baku meeting, for natural reasons. The union was suspended from its international network membership last year, after giving Tunsian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali its annual press freedom award. This award caused shock and disbelief among the union's international partners and was interpreted as another sign of the oppression of the Tunisian press.
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