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WSIS: Civil Society Highlights Tunisia’s Human Rights Record

Stefania Milan* - TerraViva/IPS

TUNIS, Nov 17 2005 (IPS) - With a solidarity visit to a group of Tunisian hunger strikers, non-governmental organisations continued their efforts Thursday to highlight Tunisia’s human rights record.

Representatives of the civil society organising committee at WSIS, the European Union, members of the European Parliament, and Iranian lawyer and Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi were among the group that visited the seven strikers, who are demanding the release of prisoners of conscience.

Some 200 people participated in the visit, which was closely watched by Tunisian security forces surrounding the building.

Leaders of the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign expressed concern at a press conference later over the fate of Tunisian human rights campaigners who had used the staging of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) here to highlight their country’s human rights record.

CRIS campaigners are worried about the fate of these activists once the WSIS is over.

Sean O’Siochru of CRIS says the human rights situation in Tunisia “is not the worst” in the world, but stressed that since WSIS is being held here, authorities were expected to go the extra mile to ensure freedom of expression.

The Tunisian government does not recognise opposition human rights groups as legitimate. They have therefore not been given proper NGO status by the United Nations, and are banned from international meetings.

But that has not stopped them from throwing in their lot with foreign non-governmental organisations, and this week the Tunisian Human Rights League is playing host to a downsized Citizens’ Summit on the Information Society (CSIS).

A mini-CSIS was launched at the small and cramped downtown offices of the Tunisian Human Rights League Wednesday.

In a long and emotional session, scores of representatives from non-governmental organisations and some 150 foreign supporters attempted to cram themselves into the small room in a defiant bid to get their voices heard.

“The CSIS now exists in newspapers and televisions around the world, which are reporting on your struggle,” Steve Buckley told the gathering at the Tunisian Human Rights League. Buckley is from the Internal Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a coalition of 14 organisations.

The launch should have been held Tuesday, but organisers found reservations for larger rooms in hotels across the city summarily cancelled. They blame government pressure.

“We declare open the Citizens’ Summit on the Information Society, to give those who do not have it in this country, the chance to speak,” Sidiki Kaba from the International Federation of Human Rights said.

The launch was virtually ignored by the thousands of foreign delegates, journalists and businesspeople who fill the Kram conference centre for the main summit, and also by the Tunisian security forces.

There is a heavy police presence at the centre. Plainclothes agents guard everything from the press centre at the conference site to the lifts and hotel staircases. These agents have been blamed for the beating up of local human rights activists, which pushed CSIS organisers into staging a protest Tuesday.

Hivos, a non-governmental group based in the Netherlands working on development projects held the first leg of a seminar on ‘Expression under Repression’ Thursday. “After an hour or so, a lot of guys in blue showed up at the seminar, asking questions in an intimidating manner,” Margrite van Doodewaard, of Hivos told IPS.

A high security official turned up to say that since the seminar was being held on Tunisian territory, the authorities had the right to cut the meeting short at any time. “Only the arrival of the Dutch ambassador and a number of Dutch and British officials saved the meeting,” van Doodewaard said.

The government of President Zine ben Abidine Ben Ali does not acknowledge the existence of prisoners of conscience.

Tunisia’s human rights record has been in the spotlight since the first phase of the WSIS held in Geneva in 2003, when non-governmental organisations objected to the United Nations’ decision to hold the second leg of the summit here.

Despite repeated assurances from Tunisian authorities about respecting freedom of expression and participation, the summit is taking place in a tense environment.

Ben Ali, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1987, presents himself as the champion of democratic change and economic development. He rules on the strength of tight political control mixed with widespread social programmes.

Amnesty International says the government exerts tight control over the media, including the Internet. Civil society leadership at the WSIS has already condemned the blocking of its website to non-conference access in Tunisia.

State media are reporting widely from the summit, but it appears that a sharp eye is being kept on the contents of that reporting. When Swiss President Samuel Schmid condemned countries that “harass or imprison their citizens because they criticise them”, the local television broadcast immediately switched to other views of the summit.

Most public offices, schools and universities have been closed to allow civil servants and students to follow the proceedings of the summit on live television.

“This summit is a missed opportunity for Tunisia to present a better image of the country as an open society where freedom of information is upheld,” Riccardo Noury from Amnesty told alternative radio agency Amisnet.

“Amnesty is pessimistic about the real will of foreign governments to put pressure on Tunisian authorities. We fear the heaviest consequences, when the WSIS is over, for those who tried to use the occasion of the summit to denounce the repression,” Noury said.

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