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Tunisia | World
Technology | Human rights

Criticism of Tunisia not allowed at UN meeting

HANA / afrol News, 24 February - The Secretariat of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) will not allow civil society to distribute a report at a preparatory meeting currently taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. The report describes freedom of expression violations in the upcoming WSIS host, Tunisia.

The sixty page report, compiled by the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring group, is critical of human rights abuses in Tunisia, the country designated to host the second phase of WSIS in November this year. The report details the imprisonment of individuals, the blocking of news and information websites, police surveillance of emails and internet cafes, lack of pluralism and media censorship.

IFEX is an international consortium of media organisations that campaign for the freedom of expression and against human rights abuses all over the world. Several IFEX members earlier have strongly protested designating the Summit to Tunisia because freedom of expression is not granted in the country.

During a media caucus meeting in Geneva this evening, Steve Buckley, world president of the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC) informed stakeholders that the WSIS secretariat had banned them from distributing the document in any meetings or rooms except the one assigned for the civil society plenary.

- They want us to sign a statement saying that we shall not distribute the report in any of the designated conference venues except civil society, Mr Buckley reported. "They maintain IFEX is not accredited, but IFEX is not an organisation - it is a consortium of organisations accredited by the WSIS."

Mr Buckley views the banning as double standards because the response from the Tunisian pro-government delegation criticising the IFEX report is being circulated as an official document at the conference.

- This is a delaying move, he holds. "If we don't get a response from the secretariat by tomorrow, we shall be left with no choice but to give the WSIS secretariat a deadline to have the report distributed because it was submitted to them with a covering letter with the five organisations that compiled the report and are accredited by WSIS."

He adds that delaying the distribution of the report is typical of the Tunisian censorship techniques. According to Article 13 of the Tunisian press code, a declaration must be lodged with the ministry of the interior before the publication of any periodical.

In exchange, the Ministry must hand out a "récépissé" (receipt). The declaration must include: The title of the periodical, the details of the publisher, the details of the printer, the language(s) in which it is drafted. By virtue of Article 14, before the printing of any periodical, the printer requires the receipt delivered by the ministry of the interior. In practice the receipt is almost never issued, thus preventing the creation of a certain number of periodicals in Tunisia.

Mark Bench, executive director WPFC refers to the situation as government censorship made possible by the UN. "I understand there was a rule at UN that if a government wishes to block any communication of an NGO, they may do so because who are we? However, coming from a country where one can say whatever they want, because this is guaranteed in the constitution, we find that this is government censorship here at the UN. We are accredited, why can we not say what we want to?"

Luckson Chipare, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) who presented the IFEX report to the conference on yesterday, says "We are registered to be here, when we were printing the report they didn't inform us of a second decision of whether or not to have the report circulated."

The IFEX report details "the state of freedom of expression in Tunisia and the conditions for participation in the WSIS." The report sets out the findings of a mission to Tunisia of freedom of expression groups. It makes a series of recommendations to the Tunisian government.

The main recommendations of the report are that Tunisia should release all prisoners of opinion, end arbitrary administrative detentions, release cyber-dissidents, end harassment and assaults on human rights activists, stop blocking websites, end censorship of books and newspapers, open up the press and broadcasting sector, respect freedom of movement, assembly and association, and allow independent investigation of alleged cases of torture by the security forces.

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