- The UN has been strongly criticised for insisting on organising the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, one of the country's in the world most censoring information. Finally today, high ranking UN human rights experts urgently called on the Tunisian government to "take immediate steps to respect the fundamental freedom of expression."
The government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has been advised to work together with human rights and press freedom groups for years to slowly improve the extreme situation of freedom of expression in the country. Several reports and recommendations have been made, but to no avail. Yesterday, the groups gave up and decided to pull out of the WSIS event.
For the WSIS and the UN - which stands as the organiser of the event - this was a major blow one day before the opening of the summit. Indeed, the groups now boycotting the event represent close to the united world press, which is a major stakeholder. They include the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Publishers' Association (IPA).
In a statement released yesterday, these associations and a large number of freedom of expression groups protested "in the strongest possible terms" against Tunisian "abuse against journalists and freedom of expression." Serious incidents had illustrated that concerns about holding a UN summit dealing with communication and freedom of expression "in such a country as Tunisia were justified." They urgently called on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to intervene.
Today, after years of silence from UN Headquarters, Mr Annan finally let his three main human rights experts open their mouths. In a joint statement today, the three urged that the holding of the WSIS in Tunis serve as "an opportunity to reinforce freedom of opinion and expression in Tunisia so that human rights defenders, judges, lawyers and journalists can successfully carry out their activities in a secure, free and constructive climate."
For the first time, the UN expressed its "profound concern" at the "deterioration with regard to freedom of expression, assembly and association and the independence of judges and lawyers in Tunisia." The three urgently called on the Tunisian government "to take immediately all measures necessary to respect fundamental freedoms, in particular fundamental norms with regard to freedom of opinion and expression, association and gathering."
The last-minute reaction from UN Headquarters is believed to have come as a response to yesterday's protest from a united world press. Freedom of expression groups had been especially shocked by several incidents during the last week, demonstrating that Tunisian authorities would not tolerate alternative views during the UN summit on information.
"Most shocking" was the attack against French journalist Christophe Boltanski on Friday, 11 November, the groups said. Among other events, journalists and civil society activists planning a Citizens' Summit on the Information Society were assaulted, abused and detained briefly on Monday as they attempted to hold a preparatory meeting at the Goethe Institute in Tunis.
afrol News and many other African media jointly have decided to boycott reporting on WSIS issues, protesting the illegitimate holding of the event in a country where critical views cannot be voiced during the summit. The only news related to WSIS reported in these media will be Tunisian human rights and freedom of expression issues.
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