Norwegian PEN launches comprehensive report on free expression in Turkey

Turkey: Freedom of Expression Under A Shadow

A Norwegian PEN Report

In November 2012, a delegation of writers from PEN International, the world association of writers, visited Istanbul and Ankara to raise long-standing concerns about the state of freedom of expression in Turkey.  During the visit, the writers met with Turkey’s then President Abdullah Gül. The discussion was frank. Among the topics raised were:  the large numbers of writers then in prison and on trial; the use of anti-terror legislation to stifle dissent; writers who had served years of untried detention; and suppression of the Internet. The meeting was amicable and Gül gave assurances that he was following the situation closely. He made an important observation, that he recognised that freedom of expression in his country was problematic, saying:  «There are many good things unfolding in Turkey, but these concerns cast a shadow over the progress we are achieving.«
In November 2014, the Norwegian PEN Centre is presenting a report which explores how the situation for freedom of expression has developed since the visit in 2012. It gives a time line of the tumultuous events of the  past two years including the Gezi  protests that broke out in May 2013; the corruption and wiretapping scandals that dominated the headlines in late 2013 and early 2014; the February 2014 judicial reforms that led to the release of several writers held for many years in pre-trial detention;  the tightening of controls on digital media that followed;  and the March local and August  Presidential elections.

The main part of the report gives space to the views of writers, NGO activists, journalists, publishers and students from across the political and religious spectrums who were interviewed for the report in early 2014 to find out how they saw the state of free expression in their country, giving voice to those who live under the free expression ‘shadow’.  They gave their opinions on questions including what, if anything, had been done to improve the state of affairs since November 2012? What was the impact of the intervening months’ political turmoil on people’s capacity to speak out? What were their hopes for the future?

The report concludes with a review of PEN’s concerns in 2012, using the time line of events, and the comments from interviewees, to make a comparison with the situation today. Findings include that the despite that the number of writers and journalists in prison has dropped from over 80 in 2012 to less than 20 today, the total number on trial remains unchanged as many of those freed are still on trial, and new trials have opened, notably on charges of defamation. Anti-terror legislation remains problematic for free expression, and there are a multitude of other laws that penalise free speech, as restrictions on the internet harden. Anxieties around self censorship and hate speech were also raised by interviewees.

The ‘shadow’ that places restraints on freedom of expression remains as critical a concern in November 2014, as it did two years earlier.

November 2014

Download report

Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege

Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege

Report of the
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group on the conditions for participation in the World Summit on the Information Society, to be held in Tunis, November 2005

February 2005

Executive Summary
The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) is a global network of 64 national, regional and international freedom of expression organisations.

This report is based on a fact-finding mission to Tunisia undertaken from 14 to 19 January 2005 by members of the  IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG) together with additional background research and Internet testing.

The mission was composed of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, International Publishers Association, Norwegian PEN, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee.

Other members of IFEX-TMG are:  ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Studies (CEHURDES), Index on Censorship, Journalistes en Danger (JED), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

The principle findings of the mission were:

·    Imprisonment of individuals related to expression of their opinions or media activities.

·    Blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafes.

·    Blocking of the distribution of books and publications.

·    Restrictions on the freedom of association, including the right of organizations to be legally established and to hold meetings.

·    Restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment, intimidation and interception of communications.

·    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.

·    Press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.

·    Use of torture by the security services with impunity.

The IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) believes that Tunisia must greatly improve its implementation of internationally agreed freedom of expression and other human rights standards if it is to hold the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005.

In particular we urge the Tunisian authorities to:

1.    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.

2.    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.

3.    Release the seven 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.  During the trials, no evidence of wrongdoing was offered, according to their lawyers and local and international human rights groups.

4.    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.

5.    Stop blocking websites and putting Internet cafes and Internet users under police surveillance.

6.    Release banned books, end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression.

7.    Take action against interference by government employees in the privacy of human rights and political activists and end the withholding of their mail and email.

8.    Lift the arbitrary travel ban on human rights defenders and political activists, including Mokhtar Yahyaoui and Mohammed Nouri.

9.    Take serious steps toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press.

10.    Promote genuine pluralism in broadcast content and ownership including fair and transparent procedures for the award of radio and TV broadcast licences.

11.    Allow independent investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

12.    Conform to international standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups such as the CNLT, the Tunis Center 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.

The full report is available at:

English: Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege

Report: Faith and free speech: Defamation of religion and freedom of expression

UN-building, Geneva, September 16th 2010:
Faith and free speech: Defamation of religion and freedom of expression.

A panel discussion held in conjunction with the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, September 16, 2010

Preamble: PEN International on faith and free speech:
– New laws are not the answer to emotional reactions. Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas.
• Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas, John Ralston Saul, president International PEN.
• Every one of the prophets and founders of religion has had to stand up against laws of defamation and claims of heresy. All religions were born as forms of freedom of expression, Ariel Dorfman, Chilean novelist and playwright.
• The Indonesian experience with a Defamation of religions Act shows that the Act violates Indonesia’s international treaty obligations by protecting religious ideas instead of the persons who adhere to religious ideas, denies equal protection and freedom of association for people with disfavoured religious beliefs and criminalize peaceful expressions of sincere religious beliefs, Budhy Rahman, The Asia Foundation.
• The question is whether legal proceedings are good responses to emotional reactions. I think not. We must work for awareness in public discussion, information and dialogue. The Muslim world must not only work on western mentality by introducing new law. Muslims must work on our own victim mentality, Tariq Ramadan, Islamic Scholar.
• We see a disproportion of focus on restrictions and not on positive measures to secure the right to speak and the right to be heard, Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19.
• The Muslim world does not see this as a debate between freedom of expression and religion. Western double standards represent misuse of freedom of expression and insults to religions. The question is not of defamation of religions but about victimization of Muslims, Zamir Akram, Pakistani ambassador.
These were some of the main points made during the almost two hour long debate over the question of introducing new international norms which will legally ban defamation of religions.

Minutes of the meeting:
The meeting was chaired by president John Ralston Saul, International PEN.
The panel:
Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19
Budhy Rahman from Asian Foundation in Indonesia
Tariq Ramadan, Islamic scholar based in Oxford.

Taped interviews with:
Nobel prize laureate Wole Soyinka, Nigeria
President  of PEN American center, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ghana
Noelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman, Argentina
Scholar and writer Azar Nafisi, Iran

Introduction by John Ralston Saul:
The whole argument about ban on defamation of religions is filled with confusion and different assumptions. One assumption is that religions have made valuable contributed to positive development. Another assumption is that religion has caused oppression, conflicts and limitations on rights and development. A central point today is that we can’t base legal suggestions on assumption that religions do just one thing.

Should we accept that writers should be limited by Islamic mullahs, Florida pastors or ministers I Ireland?
Law does not work for regulating questions dealing with freedom of expression. Religions are organizations of believers and represent power.  We can’t accept freedom from critique of religions. Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas. Rights whichcould be used to exercise increased power over citizens.

Budhy Rahman:
I will inform you about an example of ban on religious defamation from Indonesia. The recent debate over religious freedom and freedom of expression in Indonesia roots from the Defamation of religious act and the Public Faiths Supervision Coordinating Body (Bakor Pakem). The religious defamation act was introduced as article 156a in the Indonesian Criminal Code, a legacy from the Dutch Occupation. The article 156 deals with incitement to hatred and insults to different groups and article 157 details the sanctions that apply for public displays of hostility. The new article does not protect minority groups. It protects only the majority or “primary religions” from so-called deviant interpretations. The banning of specific faiths in Indonesia is based on the Defamation of religious Act in the Criminal Code, and not on the amended article 28 of the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom.

The article stems from before the Indonesian constitution was amended in 1965. The amendment included religious freedom. The question is whether the article is an exception to the right to religious freedom. The Indonesian Ulema Council and Bakorpacem believe it is an exception which restricts religious freedom and that Article 156a must be enforced as it is. Radical Muslim groups support this view. Radical groups intimidate other religious groups which they find deviant and misleading.

The concept of misleading is translated from Arabic and understood as defaming religion. The word deviant is not included in any laws in Indonesia. The Ulema uses the phrase “deviant and misleading” in relation to particular minority faiths and sects considered to be deviant based on theological arguments from the Qur’an and hadith. Radical Muslim groups use “religious defamation” and deviant and misleading” interchangeably to intimidate different groups. In the cases of religious defamation in Indonesia, the weight of the final sentence is directly linked to the level of mass pressure from radical groups.

Defenders of religious freedom and freedom of expression believe that article 156a of the criminal Code must be removed and reworked so that it accords with the article 28 of the amended Constitution. Scholars argue that ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires the government to protect all faiths and prevent violence against minority groups.

Conclusion: Ban on defamation of religion in Indonesia represents a violation of Indonesian obligations under international human rights treaties. It is protecting religious ideas instead of protecting persons who adhere to alternative religious ideas. It is excluding groups from their rights to freedom of expression, their right to organize and their right to religious freedom. Learning from the Indonesian experience: The ban on defamation punishes peaceful discussion of ideas. It is abused by government and radical groups to punish groups of so-called deviant religious beliefs and ideas A ban on defamation of religions is therefore not compatible with the rights of the individuals to feely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas and beliefs .

Agnes Callamard:
Two points I want to make:
1. The importance of positive measures.
2. The importance of process and space.
The interplay we now see between religions and freedom of expression showed this spring a reduced support of ban on defamation of religion. But on the other hand we have the Florida pastor and bans on veils in Europe and on minarets in Switzerland and the discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt Pakistan. The question is how do we deal with these questions in a multicultural world?

We see examples of religious intolerance. And we see a push to move the question of incitement to hate against individuals on base of religion. A move could be made to look at these problems in light of the article against incitement to hatred.  We see religious intolerance and we must find ways to handle it. But this is not done by a ban on defamation of religions.

Article 19 has developed a document: The Camden principles. These principles form a foundation for the exercise of all human rights. Protection against harmful practices is best done through positive measures.  The last section of the principles deals with restrictions on hate speech. But we see a disproportion of focus on restrictions and not on positive measures to secure the right to speak and the right to be heard.

There is a powerlessness felt by many groups. Some community leaders justify defamation of religion as hate speech. Extremist views are generally given to much attention.

It is not always the most extreme expressions which hurt the most. It could well be the relentless little infringements of racism and sexism. Another problem is access to media and public opinion. Minorities here in Europe – Romans – all should have access to the media and to public debate.

Process and space: I don’t think the best place to handle these issues is here in the UN Human Rights Council. I would like to highlight a current process: An organizing of regional meetings on article 20 in the International convention on civil and political Rights – ICCPR – through peaceful dialogue. This process highlights different perspectives. I think this is an important process and I hope the regional inputs will feed into the discussion in the ad hock committee on complementary standards in the ICCPR.

Also in Kenya in June we had a very good process before the referendum for a new constitution. People were scared. They feared a repetition of the violence they had experienced in the elections in 2007.  A National commission for cohesion and integration set up a two day meeting dealing with different perspectives on how to prevent incitement to hatred and religious defamation. The debate was fantastic, expressing different view and the experience of building together a nation.  My point is that there are different mechanisms to discuss difficult questions.

Tariq Ramadan:
The collaboration with PEN has been important for me during last years: Especially in the United States, where I have been prevented from entering for six years.

Difficult question: Come to agreements – important to clarify what we are talking about: The question is whether legal proceedings are good responses to emotional reactions. An important starting point is that this is not only Islamic question. These feelings are feelings within religious communities all over the world. They feel that they are not taken seriously and that their faith is under attack. Muslims share the same feeling, and Jews, and Christians.  We are dealing with shared feelings. The question is how to respond without law.

This is an international issue – not a western discussion. All the feelings are shared around the world. Especially religious people in the south see the West as secular societies which are not interested in religions and religious feelings. We have to deal with this experience of fear, mistrust and doubt on both sides.

We experience an ongoing process of controversies: First there were Jesus in movies, then the Mohammad caricatures. Now we have the burning of the Koran and the question of a mosque. Is the only way to stop these controversies by law? Muslims in the UK are saying: Britain have had blasphemy procedures. Why not also for Muslims? How to react against incidents like the pastor in Florida? Legally there is no way to prevent him. The first amendment gives him the right to express freely. But he does not have a license to burn. We are quite weak in this. Alternative measures to deal with such questions are needed. Not more law, but awareness in public discussion, information, dialogue. In Europe we see that people get scared of people coming with different religions, culture and ideas. So they respond by making law against minarets and burkas. These are laws to protect us against the people who are coming.

There is no absolute freedom of expression anywhere. There are different restrictions against hatred and racism. But there should not be restrictions against discussion of religious and ideas. The West does have limitations, but also double standards. What is common is an agreement to protect against hatred. Legally you can publicly laugh of the suffering of Jews – but it is not civil and nobody wants to do it.

We must be consistent and not let some criticism be possible and other not. Denying the holocaust is for me unacceptable. But should we protect history by law? What wants to be heard by people, is not more law but consistency in the way law is implemented in our society. This is a question of minorities and majority – about power. There must be equal right to criticize and being criticized. Should a competition of feelings be resolved by law?

Critical discussion: We need more critical debate. In Pakistan I encourage my fellow Muslims to take a more critical distance and not ask for more laws: We do need positive measures – and not just say no to more laws. We must all have a better understanding of what is at stake.

John Ralston Saul:
Large part of the weight has been put by the panel on not to establish more laws, but to use other measures. The interfaith movement should have been dealing with many of these issues. The question is why they are not carrying the weight? Could we push the interfaith movement to prevent more violence?

Agnes Callamard:
This is a responsibility for every human being – not only the organized religions. The current law is to blunt.  We must bring in a different perspective of the role of states. There are community radios and other ways to get  access to public debate. Public service broadcasting does play a key role in integrating different perspectives. So this is important both for states and for the individuals.

Tariq Ramadan:
What we are facing are exceptions for interfaith circles. Look at what is happening in various interfaith dialogues: They are sharing values and perceive the surrounding as threatening. We need an opening of the closed circles to dialogue with the outside world. Interfaith dialogue should also include agnostics and atheists. This would bring in other perspectives. We are not doing the job without engaging the surrounding societies.

It’s important with presence of religious perspectives in the debate and not just for defending religion . In civil societies religious societies must be recognized for giving contributions to the debate, not only seen as backwards. This applies to committed Muslims and Westerners. Religion must not be seen as preventing you from being a serious European or Canadian.

There exists no right not to be criticized. We must work through dialogue, education and solidarity. Not try only to defend ourselves exclusively by law.

Budhy Rahman:
The interfaith dialogue is often too intellectual. What is the meaning of interfaith dialogue? Democracy and better collaboration between religions and culture must be more developed.  Which means we need a more concrete dialogue. It must deal more with practical problems. There are so much problems with poverty in Asia. Much of the interfaith dialogue is not connected with practical dimensions like poverty, environmental issues and development. What for example is the common platform between Christianity and Islam? Let’s say it is love. What then is the spiritual meaning of love into concrete questions dealing with poverty and environment?

The filmed interviews with Wole Soyinka, Ariel Dorfman, Azar Nafisi and Kwame Anthony Appiah were shown. (See transcript)

John Ralston Saul:
This is a provocative debate. The debate is seen by many as based on western individualism. But provocations exist in every healthy civilization.

Tariq Ramadan:
It is a very difficult but critical debate: During the cartoons I met with Hindus and Muslims. And in Africa people were not used to this kind of provocation. It was seen as a cultural, silly provocation. In Africa they had another tradition. Not neglect. It was not provocation which was perceived – it was arrogance.

It is important not only to see the arrogance and to play the victim role. Muslims must work on their state of victimhood. For Africans it was difficult to perceive the US as victim after 9/11 It seemed strange. But this is basic psychology. Therefore Muslim must not only work on western mentality – but on our own victim mentality.

Agnes Callamard:
There are many people in Africa in prison because of provocations. Provocations are not a western idea. Provocation – depends on who provokes – and who are being provoked. This is a question of power structure.

Budhy Rahman:
The Indonesian perceptive of West: Many ideas come to Indonesia from the West: Gender ideas, democracy, human rights. The problem is: How to relate this with local wisdom and Muslim tradition in Indonesia? Is it possible to receive global ideas and still be an Indonesian Muslim? European Muslims develop their own identity. In Indonesia is the discussion; How western can we go? If we follow the Quran: Can the Quran legitimate the human rights? Fully – or just half of the human rights? Many scholars in Indonesia accept  fully the human rights – without rejection of  Islamic faith.

Questions from the audience:

Egyptian journalist:
1. Asks Tariq Ramadan what he thinks about an Egyptian tv series which portrays the Muslim Brotherhood and Ramadans grandfather.
1. Asks Tariq Ramadan what he thinks about an Egyptian tv series which portrays the Muslim Brotherhood and Ramadans grandfather.
2. Asks Tariq Ramadan if he thinks it’s right to establish a Muslim center by Ground Zero or if the Center should be more inclusive.

Pakistan ambassador Zamir Akram (also representing the OIC at the UN HR Council):
The meeting needs to hear from me. This is an unnecessary debate by a western organization. The Muslim world does not see this as a debate between freedom of expression and religion. We are opposed to misuse of freedom of expression and insults to religions. Equal tribute is being denied Muslims by Western double standards. Sanctimonious arrogance is showed by the West. There are several western countries with blasphemy laws: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Switzerland, The problem is apparent: West treats Muslims different than how it treats anti-Semitism and denial of Holocaust. Fact speak for itself. Before us we have the issue of minarets in Switzerland. Provocations made to show that Muslims resort to violence. The film Fitna compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Ban on burkas and on mosques and burning of the Quran. Obama spoke out against burning of the Quran. Then he was asked if h was a Muslim. He denied that he is a Muslim – like being a Muslim is a crime. Even when you are a Muslim you are stripped at airports. The question is not of defamation of religions but about victimization of Muslims linked to terrorism. There are examples of terror in all religions. Promoting dialogue is just serving the cause of those who wants to promote greater dehumanization of Muslims

Pakistani woman comments the Pakistani ambassador (while he chooses to leave the room – curtailed by 3 – 4 other diplomats):
I’ve lived in the West for 25 years: Muslims have more freedom in west than in any of the Muslim countries. Freedom of speech: Geert Wilders doesn’t harm me. Western world was the first to condemn the burning of the Quran. I have not the same freedom to say what I say here in my county of birth. Let s get over the victimization of Muslims. Let’s get on to freedom of speech

Tariq Ramadan:
About the tv-film in Egypt: It’s clear that this production has a political take. The government is in on this. I have not watched one of the programs. But from what I have heard are they clearly trying to demonize the Muslim brotherhood. But I would not try to sue the production. Some in my family are trying to do this. It is primarily a political game trying to destroy the image of the brotherhood. I’m not sure it’s working as intended.

About  the Islamic center in New York: I have surprised many Muslims. I think Muslims must struggle for their rights. New American Muslims should learn from African Americans. Ground Zero is a symbolic place – Something hurt the nation. Many people struggle for rights. 20 Mosques now prevented from being built in the states. Symbolic sensitivity of Americans should make Muslims move it and to think about alternatives.  An Abrahamic center: It would be good for Muslims to take the lead and make it more inclusive. Muslims must make a struggle with intelligence.

The Pakistani ambassador has spoken and then left the room: My point is to focus on the solution to this situation. Is that more laws? No. Say no to double standards. About the victimization of Muslims: There are citizens who are both Muslims and fully Europeans. I agree with the ambassador’s assessment of the situation -Not with his solution. I’m a western: Don’t speak about human rights as something western. We must have a balanced approach to this.

John Ralston Saul:
There are tensions around other groups as well. This will be worked out. Look at many companies in Western countries – Muslims everywhere. Being westernized means also that Muslims in the West are changing the West. The ambassador has not looked up PENs organization. PEN is an international organization with 145 centers in 104 countries.

Question from the audience:
We are dealing with a draft to craft a new norm on defamation of religions. People who are not satisfied can come to the committee to express their views. How should we otherwise handle these issues? The questions are: Is the new norm right? Is it a valid draft?

Comment from the US-representative:
There is a great deal of debate about these questions. The US shares the concerns. We have had struggles in our own history against incitement to hatred. These issues concerns both religious and political leaders. Recent weeks have showed that dialogue and open debate is the best way. Religious groups have reached out to the pastors. Many government leaders condemn the burning of the Quran. This is one man’s fear and ignorance. Obama has clearly stated that the idea behind the burning of holy scriptures is contrary to the values of this country.

Comment from Iranian woman:
Tariq Ramadan has not spoken about stoning. Women are tortured in name of Islam. Many Muslim women have the misfortune of being forced to wear the veil. France has now decided on laws against the veil. You must speak of misfortunes and problems in Muslim countries. There are cruel things that happen to women.

Comment from woman in the audience:
West – east – we are all responsible.  I am more proud of my nationality. The religion is private. Why did we have to leave our country? We must make our countries a better place. The Iranian regime is behind torture, rape, execution, crimes and inhumanity in the name of Islam. The Pakistani ambassador is also the spokesperson for the Islamic countries. It is very rude to leave like this.

Comment from professor Alfred de Zayas, Swiss Italian PEN:
What in opinion legitimate limitations on freedom of expressions?  Article 19 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights holds limitations to freedom of expression. In this discussion we must look at all the articles 18, 19 and 20, about freedom of religion, freedom of expression and incitement to hatred.

Tariq Ramadan:
It is the wrong way to ask for more laws. I have said so both to Muslim NGOs and to the IOC; it is a wrong strategy.
USA: I would be cautious about people nurturing conflict. It’s done not only by ignorance. The Pastor in Florida and Geert Wilders and the journalists in Denmark – they are not ignorant people. They know exactly what they want to provoke. Some will win the next election. All are in danger of these people. Radically encountering these people – they know what they want to encounter. Not easy. Iran = not my topic. On my website there are articles about Iran imposing the headscarf. I think it’s wrong.  I can’t enter my country of origin: Egypt or Saudi because of my opinions. Today I struggle against the victim mentality in Muslim communities. Muslims must not just blame the West. Discussion is part of the answer. I share many of the feelings expressed by the Pakistani ambassador. I do not deny it.

Agnes Callamard:
Alternative strategies are needed. What will be legitimate restrictions of freedom of expression? Issuing a new ban on defamation of religions as a new norm is not. This concept is a fraud. We can’t handle the difficult situation we are in now by new laws.

A ban on defamation of religions is a concept showed so defective on many fronts. We must look more in the direction of Human Rights Article 20 on Incitement to hatred, which is by far a better legal framework. But this is not enough. It distorts the picture to only look at legal measures. Again I would like to draw your attentions to the process in Kenya. Kenya has been in forefront in challenging the effects of incitement to hatred. Hate speech regulations today are to blunt. We must strengthen the knowledge of human rights, develop ethical journalism and better intra religious dialogue and guidelines for ethical conduct of members of parliament on these issues.

Report by Ann-Magrit Austenå, Norwegian PEN

Freedom of Expression in Belarus

Freedom of Expression in Belarus

Report from a joint mission
International Publishers Association
Norwegian Union of Journalists
Norwegian PEN

 

Contents
Introduction                                               p 3
Executive Summary                                   p 3
Political situation                                       p 4
Legal issues                                              p 5
Freedom of Expression                               p 6
Registration                                           p 6
Distribution                                            p 6
Language                                               p 7
Press freedom                                        p 8
Freedom to publish                                 p 9
Conclusion                                                p 10
Recommendations                                     p 11
Appendixes                                               p 12
1: Official data                                       p 12
2: The case of Andrei Klimov                   p 12
3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers    p 12
4: Concrete examples of implementation
of Article 10 of the Media Law                     p 13

Introduction
For years, international NGOs and press freedom organizations have been monitoring the situation of human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular in Belarus. Norwegian PEN sent a mission to Belarus (Minsk region) in February 2005. At that point, the different Nordic PEN-centres had already been engaged in Belarus since the mid-nineties. A report in Norwegian from this mission is available upon request.

Norwegian PEN applied for and received funding for a follow-up mission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The delegation, which visited Minsk and Hrodna in November 2007, represented Norwegian PEN, the Norwegian Union of Journalists and the International Publishers Association (IPA – Geneva).  This report was written by PEN and IPA and represents the views of the entire delegation.

Executive summary
Belarus has been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe». Not all people we talked to during this mission condone this analysis. One interviewee said that «what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it».

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different administrative initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets across to the majority of the people. Still the opposition, although ideologically split, fights back.

The Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation. The main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are:

a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across;

b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko and their chilling effect on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information would also tend to prove that the authorities are preparing for control of the Internet.

The authorities stifle press freedom and freedom to publish through control of registration and distribution. Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. Such registration may be denied or recalled at any time. The authorities also control all book- and newspaper-distribution through State bookstores and kiosks, as well as a national subscription system.

In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include fines for critical journalism, lack of state advertisements and restrictions on access to information. It is a strain on journalists to work for independent papers who are generally in a tight financial situation. With little or no training possibilities, independent media is not allowed to develop.

Freedom to publish books is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country and only 5 – 6 private publishers. Of these only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long. Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

Finally, President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. There seems to be a wide State project seeking to restrict it. Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. If the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, one cannot be optimistic about the future of the Belarusian language.

Political situation
Belarus has often been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe» by international political observers and analysts. Not all people we talked to in Belarus condone this analysis, including representatives of the opposition. Said one high profiled journalist representative: «I would not say that we live in a dictatorship. An autocratic regime, yes, but not a dictatorship». The President of PEN Belarus said he did not know whether to call Belarus a dictatorship or an autocratic regime, but “what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it”.

This last observation was repeated by many people we interviewed during the mission: Many people do not care, they are indifferent, they actually believe in Lukashenko. In a way, this is understandable, considering that Belarus is not in a state of chaos and most aspects of everyday life seem to function well. If society seems to function and nobody is starving, then why not let Lukashenko stay on?

Most people also believe elections are free and open. This situation would be close to unbelievable in any other country if the sitting President received 98% of the votes. Or if election results were obviously rigged, which was the case during the last elections for Parliament, where the results were available two weeks prior to the actual elections. Once the elections took place, President Lukashenko had already «appointed» all the new members of Parliament.

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets properly across to the majority of the people. 70% of the population still believes elections are open and transparent. Only about 25 – 30% supports the opposition, but as much as 30% of the population does not believe in political changes.

Still, the opposition fights back. Even though it has tried for years, even though the 10 opposition parties working together are split ideologically, they try to work together. When in Minsk, the delegation was informed about an ongoing conference in Vilnius where 60 regional leaders of the various Belarusian opposition parties were discussing common strategies prior to next year’s Parliamentary elections. The exact date for these elections has not yet been announced, but opposition parties will hardly accept another rigged election. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the opposition – standing together and nominating their candidates on one, joint list – have a better position vis-à-vis the electoral committee . Another is the increased use of the Internet, in particular by the younger generation which is growing increasingly tired of State propaganda.

Still, one important, uncertain factor may be essential: The Belarusian economy. When the delegation visited Belarus, the news about the U.S. freezing of Belarusian funds «broke». That is, people we talked to knew about this, but there was no official statement from the authorities and no news in the newspapers, not even in the State media.

The freezing of foreign investment is yet another nail in the «Belarusian financial coffin». Due to the complex relationship with Russia and the ongoing conflict with regards to oil- and gas prices, which has previously allowed for imports at very reasonable prices, Russian financial support is now drying up. This is dramatic because the Belarusian economy, according to opposition politician and former presidential candidate Alaksandar Milinkievic, is not in a good position as far as trade competition is concerned. The people’s dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s financial regime is increasing. According to opposition figures we met with, the authorities recently scrapped all social benefits in order to balance the budget. Milinkievic says the primary challenge for the opposition is to make people understand that they can win through «peaceful street fights».  However, other opposition politicians we talked to would not use the term «peaceful», the bottom line being the fact that opposition candidates are unable to promote themselves in the media and change would therefore have to be brought about through more revolutionary methods.

Yet the Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation and too many simply do not care. The younger generation’s willingness to put up a real, political fight remains to be seen. At this point, therefore, the main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are: a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across, b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legal issues
Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko.

Articles 367 and 368 of the Belarusian Penal Code (BPC) were introduced in January 2001, in preparation for the 2001 presidential elections. Article 367 BPC criminalises defaming the President, while Article 368 BPC criminalises insulting the President. Defamation of the President can result in up to five years in prison. Other criminal defamation articles of the Penal Code include: Article 188 (spreading false information discrediting another person), Article 189 (deliberate degradation of the honour and dignity of an individual), and Article 369 (insult of a public official). Defamation and insult of ordinary citizens (Articles 188 & 189) can lead to imprisonment for up to two years .

The law “on entering amendments and changes to certain legislative acts of the Republic of Belarus on strengthening responsibility for the actions directed against human being and public safety” came into force on 2 January 2006 . It includes a series of amendments to the criminal code that further undermine freedom of expression. In particular, Article 369(1) now criminalises defamation of the Belarusian State.

Even more so than in a country like Turkey where similar provisions exist and are used to stifle freedom of expression, the chilling effect of these criminal defamation provisions on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. These provisions, including those which came into force on 2. January 2006, violate international freedom of expression standards, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Belarus is a party to.

Use of civil defamation suits to silence non-State media is much more common . Article 5 of the civil code prohibits the publication of information damaging the honour or dignity of the President, as well as high-ranking officials, and can lead to the closure of a media outlet following the accumulation of two or more warnings.

Part of Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. For some years, the authorities have been using this article to silence independent and opposition media by blocking their registration. For concrete examples of the implementation of Article 10, please see Appendix 4 on pp. 13-18. Clearly, some of the decisions are politically-motivated.

The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information, which proposes creating a system for registering all media, including online publications, is one of the disturbing legal developments of this year. Because of the lack of freedom of expression in the country, there is no real debate around this proposed piece of legislation. In August 2007, the Ministry of Information created a working group to look at the “Internet’s legal regulation” . It is not clear yet whether registration will be recommended or obligatory.

People we talked to had different views about the proposed new law. The bottom line probably is, like some young journalist from Hrodna put it, that «the State is preparing for control of the Internet». That may very well be, but as it turned out, even the editor of the most selling State newspaper «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» was very critical of the work preceding the new law. Said editor Pavel Yakubovich: «I think websites should be registered and all censorship abolished, but I fear the new law will be politically-biased». He was clearly not satisfied with the lawmaking process, claiming the lawmakers were unprofessional and not real legal experts. The result remains to be seen – so far there is not even a draft for a new law, so it is too early to discuss. Both Yakubovich and editor Anatol Lemyashonak of the State-controlled daily «Respublika» were interested in the new law and said they would actively debate it in their respective newspapers. Still, Belarus may soon be the only European country to join ranks with countries like China, Tunisia and Cuba where government control of the Internet is more or less total.  Until then, the Internet remains one of the few means to reach young people and to have open discussions about politics in Belarus.

Freedom of expression

Various forms of censorship in Belarus
There is no pre-publication censorship in Belarus. Yet everything published, aired or broadcast must be in line with “State ideology”. Belarus is one of the last countries in Europe with a State press. Vis-à-vis non-State press, censorship is indirect. Administrative and economic measures are used to stifle freedom of expression, as well as defamation cases. The authorities use more or less sophisticated administrative methods to control the press and stifle the opposition, the main two elements being registration and distribution.

Registration
All business-, NGO- and media-activity in Belarus must be okayed by the authorities through registration of such activity. As seen above, Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. The outcome of this process is entirely up to the authorities. Registration may be denied or recalled at any time. Even though an appeal to the courts is an option, the outcome is seldom in favour of the plaintiff. Consequently, the authorities control the existence of all Belarusian NGOs, including the non-state journalist organization Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). They may revoke the registration at any point, rendering the organization illegal or, in the worst case, obsolete. Authorities may also seize all assets, including buildings, office spaces and all goods in stock, as they did with the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, the oldest artist organization in the country. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree, allowing for the confiscation of the unions office building in Minsk – including a 500 seat theatre for meetings and cultural events as well as all their printed material, values totalling more than 1.2 million Euros. Finally, in 2006, the Union was thrown out of its remaining offices. For more, see Appendix 3 on page 12.

One reason for being denied registration is the lack of a legal address. Since the authorities are in control of most of the office buildings in Minsk, an address may be very hard to obtain, unless one has a good relationship with these same authorities.

Without registration, it is not possible to operate. Lack of registration is therefore the main obstacle for the media, including book publishing. Without registration, you are not allowed to distribute books and newspapers and the authorities control the distribution.

Distribution

Books
There is a de facto State monopoly on the distribution of books through Belkniga. Belkniga is a State-owned Company, which operates bookshops and libraries throughout the country. The Director of Belkniga is appointed by the Ministry of Information. It is not uncommon for State bookshop directors to refuse to sell a book by one of the independent publishers (for e.g.: a book with the Belarusian flag on the cover).

There are also a few independent bookshops and a huge book market in Minsk, but it is very difficult to operate an independent bookshop successfully. Higher distribution costs than for official bookshops are one of the reasons why it is so difficult. In addition, Belarusians are used to cheap books since the Soviet era. As a result, it is nearly impossible for independent publishers and booksellers to increase book prices in order to make a profit. State publishers and official bookshops do not face a similar problem as they are subsidized by the government.

State bookshops are accused of favouring books in Russian, and as a consequence, books from Russia. This fact helps explain why the print runs of Belarusian publishers publishing in Belarusian are so small (maximum of 2’000 copies). For more on language, please see the “Language” section hereunder.

As a consequence of the de facto monopoly on distribution, the easiest way to reach the readers of independent books is not through bookshops. Writers and private publishers strive to organize private sales in order to be able to meet the readers. However, organizing such meetings is getting increasingly difficult as there are less and less spaces available. In Minsk, such meetings, where writers meet their readers, used to take place at the House of Literature where the Union of Writers was headquartered. Now such meetings are banned there. It is also getting increasingly difficult to access the Universities. Most premises belong to State Institutions. Under these circumstances, less convenient locations have to be found. Other alternative distribution channels include: several unofficial selling points throughout Minsk, some Internet websites etc.

Newspapers
The situation for newspaper distribution is much the same. The State controls the newspaper «kiosks» and vendors are reluctant to stock independent newspapers, though some may be found if you ask for them specifically. The State distribution system also controls how many copies you are allowed to sell, regardless of the actual demand. Consequently, some newspapers, like those owned by the Baranavichy Publishing House «Intex-press», have established their own distributions system. This also makes it possible for them to distribute their papers in small villages. But the system is costly and time-consuming.

In addition to retail, the State controls a subscription system through which newspapers are distributed by mail. The State can remove any newspaper from the subscription list at its own discretion.

Language
The two official languages of Belarus are Russian and Belarusian. That said, Russian is by far the dominating language in Belarus. The Belarusian language is not forbidden, but as with press freedom, the authorities, rather than encourage the use of Belarusian, stifle it in all possible areas of society, including in schools and universities.

Belarusian is no longer spoken in public schools. President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. The opposition is deprived of the possibility to explain to the people that they have the right to be Belarusian and to protect their language and culture. The State newspaper editors say that journalists can write in Belarusian, but this is hardly the case.

Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. Speaking, writing or publishing in Belarusian de facto places the person using this means of expression, or responsible for this means of expression, in the opposition camp. The Belarusian language, despite being one of the two official languages, is clearly repressed to the benefit of the Russian language. According to those who we met with, official data shows that a majority of books published in Belarus are in Belarusian. But they assert the contrary. According to the Belarusian PEN centre, the vast majority of books available in Belarus are in Russian. Imports from Russia would make up a big chunk of the local book market.

Only a few actors, like the PEN centre, are able and actually edit books in Belarusian in cooperation with a handful of private publishers, which publish more books in Belarusian than State publishers do, albeit with much smaller circulations (up to 2000 copies vs. sometimes more than 10’000 in the case of State publishers). Generally speaking, the Belarusian PEN centre is one of very few places in Minsk where events in Belarusian may be arranged.

According to some interviewees, there is a wide State project seeking to restrict Belarusian culture and language, as embodied in the shutting down of the Marc Chagall institute, or the moving to Lithuania of the European Humanities University. The names of the nationally-conscious Belarusian writers were deleted from the curriculum to the benefit of a new concept entitled: “Russian literature in Belarus”.

According to President Lukashenko, there is no reason to study Belarusian anymore because in the end the world will speak only two languages: English and Chinese. President Lukashenko would have also declared that “no-one wants to read in Belarusian”. Underground poetry books , with a circulation of up to 2000-3000,  would tend to prove him wrong. That said, if the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, then the future of the Belarusian language is bleak and may be compared to that of other minority languages.

Press freedom
In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include:

·    Fines for critical journalism;
·    No state advertisements – stifling of economy;
·    Restrictions on access to information;
·    Generally tight financial situation;
·    Strain on journalists to work for independent papers;
·    Little or no training – independent media not allowed to develop.

It is a heavy strain on journalists to work for opposition papers and, consequently, to be labelled an «enemy» of the State», one independent newspaper publisher told the delegation. As stated in this report’s chapter on Legal Issues, the Belarusian authorities have introduced a number of laws, rules and regulation which stifle press freedom and freedom to publish. Journalists or newspaper editors may be fined for a number of reasons, including defaming the President.

Although they may be politically «neutral», journalists working for independent media know very well that they are being associated with the opposition, as is almost all citizens working for independent publishers, non-registered NGOs, or even if their only «crime» is active use of the Belarusian language. Once one has been associated with the independent, «free» press, getting work for the State press is no longer an option.

In addition, there are regulations, which limit journalistic work, the most limiting being the restrictions on access to information.

State information is only distributed to the State press, which has a «contractual agreement» with the office of the President stipulating «rights and obligations of both parties». The State press is under obligation to publish information from the State and the Supreme Court. Still, the editors of the two State newspapers we spoke to assured us that they made the final decisions with regards to what to print, adding that they might even be critical of state information, «but not every day». Both editors claimed that they had been warned when they were «out of line». The authorities would have even tried to get rid of one of them on several occasions.

Journalists working for the independent press have no access to this type of information, with the only exception of information accessible on the Internet, which is only a small fraction of the total amount of State information. State officials are not allowed to even talk to, or inform independent media and their journalists who do not get accredited to press conferences and other important events.

In terms of economic conditions, the independent press is banned from State advertising. Revenues from non-State companies are close to non-existent, even though some independent papers manage to get some. Other hurdles include: Costly distribution, the added cost for some papers of printing in Russia, the extremely high prices on newsprint compared to the State press and heavy fines if the independent press does not write in accordance with the «rules» of the authorities. Overall, it is quite clear that the independent newspapers in Belarus fight an ongoing battle to stay alive.

Narodnaya Volya, one of the most important independent newspapers in Belarus, is facing huge problems. Their chief editor Losif Seredich said economic support from abroad is a life and death question for the newspaper. The most pressing issue for the newspaper right now is to pay a fine of 15.000 US dollars. The newspaper was expecting to be sentenced to pay such a fine for violating the law. This was confirmed upon the return to Norway of the Norwegian members of the delegation. This is one of many fines the newspaper has had to pay in recent years for its investigative and critical journalism. So far it has managed to pay the fines, but it is now in urgent need of money.

This situation allows for little if any development of the independent press in Belarus. Training is scarce and costly. Newspaper editors are not allowed to bring trainers in from abroad. As a result, most training has to take place domestically and over the week-end, or in other countries when it is possible financially. The Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius has been used for such trainings. This sad situation was confirmed even by State editors who told us that the level of journalism is higher in the West because Belarus has not paid enough attention to the development of journalism in the last 30 years.

The State press also has other types of financial security arrangements. For instance, «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» has 70.000 mandatory State subscribers. Editor in chief Yakubovich was clearly not satisfied with this arrangement. He claimed «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» did not need these subscribers, and actually went as far as to state that the arrangement with State subscribers was bad for the image of his newspaper. Both editors of the State newspapers we talked to defended editorial freedom and claimed that they were allowed to write, publish and edit their respective paper the way they wanted, even though they had previously been warned off by State officials for not publishing State information in a satisfactory manner. They gave vague answers regarding press freedom issues, but admitted that the situation for press freedom and human rights was not good, while giving credit to BAJ for its work.

Mr. Yakubovich was also very engaged, almost curiously so, in the amount of returns from the State kiosks. We were presented with figures showing a return percentage of up to and exceeding 30% for some newspapers in some areas. This trend was also confirmed by Viachaslau Khadasouski of the independent weekly «Belorusy i Rynok». The question we asked in return was: «If the return rate keeps increasing, why don’t you print fewer newspapers?». The response was yet another example of the lack of openness in Belarus.  According to editor Yakubovich, the authorities «keep silent about these figures because the advertisers would be chocked» if they learned about them.

”What are the reasons for these huge returns?” we also asked. We received no clear answers. Any questions from us suggesting that the return rates might have to do with the actual content of the newspapers, that the buyers were obviously fed up with State media and State propaganda, were left unanswered or, at best, with comments such as «this is not possible to know.»

Freedom to publish

Introduction
The situation for publishers in Belarus, in an environment with virtually no freedom of expression, is very difficult.

As seen above, the legal environment (e.g.: Art 358 of the Penal Code, «insulting the President») is not satisfactory. Clearly, it does not promote good freedom of expression and freedom to publish conditions in the country.

As far as publishing is concerned, freedom to publish is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country. Besides the State publishers, several hundred entities hold a publishing license. Among them, there are State entities such as universities, and 5 or 6 real independent and private publishers. These few private publishers tried to create a publishers’ association some 10 years ago. But this attempt failed for various reasons. Out of this group of 5 to 6 publishers, only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long.

Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

An arbitrary book publishing license system
To be able to operate as a publisher, a license is needed. To get this license, the applicant needs to take an oral exam at the Ministry of Information. Whether he/she fails or passes the exam is entirely at the discretion of the Ministry, which usually refuses to give, should an applicant fail, the reasons why she or he failed. The exam can be taken once every six months.

It is apparently getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get the publishing license. Those who are black-listed simply cannot get the license. Overall, the license is (not) delivered on an arbitrary basis.

To complicate things further, there are several publishing licenses for each type of literature. There is a license for fiction, a license for school books, a license for scientific materials etc. Again, in practice, the Ministry seems to be giving them at its own will. For instance, there seems to be a non-written rule whereupon the license for fiction is no longer given, or rarely so.

The publishing license is renewable every five years through an oral exam. Renewal of the license seems to be even more difficult than getting it for the first time.

The Ministry of Information issues warnings to publishers. In the first warning issued by the Ministry, the recipient is informed that the second warning would give the authorities the right to withdraw his/her publishing license(s). The warning system, as well as the need to renew one’s license, helps explain the sometimes short life expectancy of independent/private publishers in Belarus. As a publisher put it: “It is extremely difficult to be on the constant threat of having one’s license removed”. Books in Russian are less likely to get warnings than books in Belarusian.

Once a first warning is issued, the publisher concerned is under the threat of a second warning, which would mean the termination of his/her right to operate as a book publisher. The warnings do not refer to the content of books directly. They deal with technical issues such as the width of margins etc.

In reality, what is behind the issuing of these “technical warnings”?

1.    Publishing books which generally do not match the official line (Any alternative/original thought may anger the authorities);
2.    Publishing in the Belarusian language.

Plummeting sales
When independence was declared, there was a real hunger for books in Belarus. Print runs were rather high. With the turn of repression in the mid-1990s, sales and print runs started plummeting, making it difficult for private publishers to develop their business. Print runs have become so small over the years that the few existing private publishers depend on the support of private foundations.

Conclusion
This mission’s participants urge international NGOs, freedom of expression organizations and European political institutions to keep monitoring the situation for human rights in general and freedom of expression and to publish in particular over the next years. Such monitoring is particularly important with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2008 and future presidential elections. In the period preceding these elections, we urge Belarusian and European authorities to consider the following recommendations.

Recommendations to the Belarusian authorities

·    Repeal all criminal defamation laws, in particular Articles 367, 368 & 369 of the Belarusian Penal Code;
·    Stop imposing prison sentences and disproportionate fines in defamation cases;
·    Degrade Articles 188 and 189 from the Penal Code to the Civil Code so as to ease the chilling effect on freedom of expression;
·    Repeal Article 10 of the Media Law, in particular the section requiring news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located;
·    Open spaces for public debates before pushing through legislative changes having a chilling effect on freedom of expression (e.g.: Proposed Law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information);
·    In general bring Belarusian media laws in line with international standards;
·    Lift the obligation to take an oral exam to get a book publishing license;
·    Lift the book publishing license system;
·    Free the book distribution system;
·    Stop using the distribution system as a way to hamper the distribution of independent newspapers (retail & subscription);
·    In general refrain from discriminatory policies towards independent media;
·    Stop repressing all forms of expression in the Belarusian language;
·    If the proposed law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information goes through, do not make the registration of online publications compulsory.

To the EU

·    Do not engage in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) process until the above points have been enforced locally

 

Appendixes

Appendix 1: Official data:
According to the Ministry of Information of Belarus, it had issued 584 book publishing licenses as of 1 August 2006.

While 22 publishing houses, including 2 State-owned publishers, issued 100-300 titles in 2005, 120 registered enterprises issued from 10 to 100 titles. Overall, Belarusian publishers issued 10’784 titles (of books and brochures) in 2005, according to data from the Ministry of Information. Educational publishing accounted for 40 % of that amount.

Currently, the Ministry of Information comprises 5 State-owned publishers. Each of them has its own specialisation

Officially, a Belarusian Association of Book Publishers and Book Distributors was created in 1994. According the Ministry, “it is an independent NGO uniting publishers, printers and book distributors”.

Appendix 2: The case of Andrei Klimov
Writer and political activist Andrei Klimov was arrested on 3 April 2007 following the posting of a publication of his on the web site of the United Civil Party and that criticized the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

On 1 August 2007, Minsk’s Central District Court sentenced Andrei Klimov to two years in a high-security prison for making public calls to overthrow the government or to change the constitutional order violently using the media (Art. 361 BPC). At the end of a closed-door trial, Klimov was sentenced to two years in a high-security prison.

Appendix 3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers
The union of Belarusian writers is the oldest creative organization in Belarus. During the wave of national revival following independence, the union of Belarusian writers became an influential NGO supporting democracy and national identity. The authorities did not approve of this. From 1995, the authorities have been pressuring the union of writers both as a legal entity, and in terms of individual harassment.

The Union of Belarusian Writers used to enjoy a large building of several thousand square meters in a nice location which it owned. This location included a 500-seat hall to organize cultural events. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree taking away the building from the Union of Belarusian Writers. In 2006, the Union of Belarusian Writers was thrown out of the few remaining rooms it was occupying in the building. Last year, the Ministry of Justice applied to the Supreme Court for the liquidation of the Union of Belarusian Writers. Belarusian writers managed to defend their union so that it is still operating legally today.

That said, the Union of Belarusian Writers was expelled from its premises. In addition to this, the State seized all of the Union’s publications, including the weekly newspaper, and the literature magazines. A State holding was established on the basis of these publications. Not a single member of the Union of Belarusian Writers can publish in these publications. There is a black list. The Union members have grown to be dissidents.

The Government decided to create its own “pocket governmental union” in lieu of the Union of Writers. The official name of the governmental union is the Union of Writers of Belarus, i.e. the name the non-governmental union used to have until 1996 when it changed its name to the Union of Belarusian writers (NGOs were not allowed to use the country’s name in their official names).

The new governmental union has premises on State budget.

That said, the most renowned writers remain in the non-governmental union. It has 574 members, while the official union has around 300 members, most of these are not even writers. 30 of the non-official union write in Russian, while most of the writers of the official union write in Russian.

Appendix 4: Concrete examples of implementation of Article 10 of the Media Law

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Pinsk City Executive Committee

21, Dniaprouskaj Flatylii Str.,
Pinsk, 225710, Brest region
Phones: 35-33-19, 35-33-27;
Fax: 35-36-91

28-09-1999  No. 1019/ 2

TO: Sytsin F.F.,
Tsentralanaya Str.,
56-13, Pinsk

TO: Tsishuk P.N.,
17, Darozhnaya Str.,
Pinsk

TO: Yarashuk V.T.
Piershamayskaya Str.,
109-15, Pinsk

Your application of 17-09-1999 about foundation and the necessity of adjustment of placement of  “Pravintsyja” periodical edition in the city of Pinsk was considered at a regular sitting of Pinsk City Executive Committee on 28-09-1999.

Presently, 7 periodical editions with the total circulation of 48.3 thousand copies are published in the city of Pinsk.

Hence, Pinsk City Executive Committee considers the presence of such a number of manifold periodical editions to be sufficient for informing the city dwellers and presenting the events taking place in it.

Chairman of Pinsk City Executive Committee    [SIGNATURE]

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Hrodna City Executive Committee

DECISION No. 671

Hrodna, August 13, 2002

About placement of a media outlet

Having considered an application, submitted by Hrodna City Council of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna, with a request to get an approval for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper, founded by this NGO, Hrodna City Executive Committee took into account the “Viedamasci” newspaper had been planned as a social and political weekly. Publication of a periodical edition with the stated thematic does not correspond to the Statutory Notes of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna NGO.

Hence, Hrodna City Executive Committee RESOLVED

to abstain from giving a permit for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper in 11 K. Marx Str., Hrodna.

First Deputy Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee             [SIGNATURE]            A.S. Kunash

Acting Administration Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee            [SIGNATURE]            V.Y. Shaptsila

[OFFICIAL STAMP]

 

 

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region

5, Lenin Str., Smarhon, 231000
Phone: (+375 1592) 3-16-16 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (+375 1592) 3-16-16      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Fax: (+375 1592) 3-13-53

09-12-2004    No. 91/01-09

To: Ulan R.V.,
8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon

 

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region does not approve the placement of “Novaya gazeta Smarhoni” media outlet in 8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon.

 

Chairman            [SIGNATURE]        M.B. Goj

Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED

Report from Seminar and Book Launch

Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship by Øystein Alme and Morten Vågen (ISBN 91-97384445 Amaryllis 2006)

Wednesday 23. August, Human Rights House, Oslo

Panel of speakers:
Øystein Alme, writer, manager of «Voice of Tibet»
Elin Sæther, scholarship holder, University of Oslo
Åshild Kolås, program leader, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Torbjørn Færøvik, journalist, writer and China expert

Chair: Carl Morten Iversen, secretary general, Norwegian PEN
Minutes: Elisabet W. Middelthon, board member, Norwegian PEN

Norwegian PEN president, Kjell Olaf Jensen, welcomed all participants to the seminar.  Carl Morten Iversen introduced the panel and gave the floor to Øystein Alme.

Øystein Alme has been the manager of «Voice of Tibet», a short-wave radio station based in Oslo, for 10 years.  The channel is an important voice in the passing on of information about the situation in China, and is being listened to by, among others, the Security Council at the U.N.  China has pledged to abide by the same international declarations on freedom of the press and freedom of expressions as we do in Norway.  However, the Communist Party has a monopoly on almost all communication and exercise strict control and censorship.

In SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship, Alme gives a summary of his experiences with «Voice of Tibet» for the past 10 years.  The several examples of the scrambling of these broadcasts by Chinese authorities, demonstrate Chinese authorities extreme sensitivity towards uncensored material.

The book lists China´s national and international obligations.  China views any criticism of breaches on human rights as a mingling in internal affairs, and support all countries, e.g. Zimbabwe, with equally strict regulations on free expression and censorship.

New technology is increasingly influencing the daily lives of the Chinese.  Internet, electronic mail and text messages (SMS) are available.  However, the big search engines, like Yahoo and Google, are cooperating with the authorities and have accepted their demands regarding control of all electronic communications.  There are many examples of censorship and subsequent prosecution  of the users of new technology.  Printed media, like the «Tibet Daily», is for the Communist Party, and not for the people.

Journalist writing about corruption risk arrests and jail sentences up to 10 years, a fact that leads to self-censorship.  Still, the limits for what you can write are constantly being pushed.  However, people in China receive more information today than ten years ago, even though the authorities do all they can to prevent it.

The international society holds some power of influence.  With the 2008 Olympic Games as Chinas big exibition to the world, demonstrating their wish to appear as an international super-power, NGOs all over the world will try to influence the authorities.  China will be more attentive now and the Party Congress next fall will send important signals regarding China´s future strategy.  Consequently, this «train» is moving now.

What is China afraid of? Why are they afraid of a small radio station like «Voice of Tibet»?  Evidently, all information that brings alternative news, other that what you hear from state controlled media, makes the Chinese population aware of the fact that they are being deceived.  That is why all critical voices are being censored and punished.

Between 20 and 25 thousand foreign journalists are expected to visit China and Beijing in August 2008.  SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship has been written in order to demonstrate the importance of free access to information.  As we are approaching the 2008 Olympics, free access for journalists to write about a variety of important topics, the hindring of censorship, reprisals and serious breaches on freedom of expression, will be increasingly important in a country with 1,3 billion people.

Elin Sæther desribed the book as very interesting, demonstrating that «Voice of Tibet» is an important and brave radio channel.

She pointed to the fact that development of the Chinese society had not been at a stand still after Mao.  Chinese economy was previously the main reason that the media were financially dependant on the state, but the authorities have gradually withdrawn subsidies and allowed for more financial independence.  Chinese media are now more in tune with the market economy.  It is no longer possible to print four pages of party propaganda in the newspapers – they have been forced to become more interesting and entertaining.  This is a new trend which has been evolving gradually and the people behind it are writers and journalists who engage themselves in the future of the Chinese society.  The Tian An Men Massacre in 1989 was a set-back for free expressions, but that situation has gradually improved during the 1990ies.

Journalists wish to represent the voice of the people.  They want to write about problems facing the society, not only so called positive, state-edited news.  They want to write about corruption, AIDS, health problems, etc.  There are severe restrictions regarding how these themes may be treated in the media.  Any criticism of party policy is forbidden.  It is therefore important to find ways to present these topics so that they pass through the censors, without too much self-censorship.

It is also important to keep in mind that media coverage varies throughout the world, and that also western media experience censorship and self-censorship.

Åshild Kolås has worked as a Tibet-researcher since 1997.  She first visited China and Tibet in 1988.

She started by saying that it is difficult to generalize about «China» and «the Chinese», even about «Chinese authorities».  Based on personal experiences and extensive field work in Tibet (11 months in Yunnan 2002-3)  she assessed the book as being both engaging and well written.  It is not easy to visualize a topic like freedom of expression and it is not easy to get attention in the media on this topic.

She agreed to the main conclusions in the book: There is a great potential for positive change in the Chinese society.  She also agreed that there are many idealistic, Chinese journalists, but that the federal authorities are also interested in uncovering corruption on a lower, local level.  Local, illegal tax-collection does not benefit the federal authorities.  Consequently, it is the local media that uncover corruption, and this is accepted by the federal authorities.

Chinese authorities have used lots of resources on the development of the internet, also outside the big cities.  In Yunnan, Kolås registererd internet-cafés on «almost every streetcorner», but most internet users were more inclined to play games than engage in serious business or seeking out information.  There was a need for information, and the locals were obviously aware of the fact that this need was not covered through available newspapers and other news media, in particular coverage of «sensitive» topics.

To a certain extent the Chinese are aware of the fact that official media do not give neutral information about what is going on outside China.  This became particularly obvious during the SARS-epidemic, when there was a serious lack of information and, consequently, more or less trustworthy rumors were flourishing.  Information came and went through the grapewine.

When Kolås first arrived in China in 1998, she also witnessed other methods to sustain «law and order».  But harassment always takes place behind closed doors and the location of those closed doors vary from society to society.

Torbjørn Færøvik said the book was both important and practical.  But China has a long way to go, he said.

There is a big difference, also for journalists, between a brief visit in Beijing or Shanghai, and a longer stay where you travel through the country and maybe get a chance to grasp how huge and fantastic this manysided country is.  Walking the streets of Shanghai today is like walking in a big parade.  In the «olden» days, all you could see were people dressed up in Mao uniforms, now it´s all neon-light commercials.

Many things have happened during the past 30 years, both financially and politically.  But changes are hard to measure.  How do you measure – what are the terms of reference?

The degree of freedom of expression is greater today than at any point during the years since the Communist Party seized power in 1949.  There is a new situation for free expression in most fields of society.  Previously, «dangerous» ideas could only be thought, but now you can speak out.  100 million Chinese have access to the internet.  They can read newspapers from all over the world, they can listen to the BBC.  Almost everyone owns a cellphone.  When Mao died there were only one telephone per 800.000 inhabitants. (must be checked).

What happens when 1,3 billion people get access to new technology?  The authorities want to keep control, but technology is always a few steps up front.  This is a loosing battle for the authorities.  Every year millions of people visit China.  They travel throughout the country  and people are influenced by new ideas.  The Chinese people act and think in a long, historic perspective. Only 30 years have passed since Mao died.  We must admit that a positive development has taken place in China.  Six years ago China was selected to arrange the 2008 Olympics.  Let us hope that this will contribute to even more openness in China.

However, during the next two years, the situation will tighten up – we will experience a Gorbatsjov-effect.  The Chinese leaders are between 60 and 65 years old.  From now on, the authorities will be much more attentive and will hit hard on any signs of political opposition.

How should a strategy to influence China in connection with the Olympics be designed?

What should be the angle of international campaigns in order for these to be successful?

25 000 journalists will visit China during the Olympic Games.  The authorities will gradually tighten communication possibilities and working conditions for journalists during the years preceding the Olympics.  Simultaneously, Chinese authorities will have to listen to international signals focusing on (the lack of) human rights and freedom of expression.  If conditions become less strict, it will be because the authorities are pragmatic and see that it pays off.

Torbjørn Færøvik is not very optimistic regarding the 2008 Olympics, human rights and free expression.  Foreign criticism is perceived as unreasonable meddling with domestic affairs.  There is a fundamental insecurity regarding what can happen with such a great number of foreign – and domestic – visitors in Beijing during the Olympics.  Therefore, the authorities need total control.

It is important to try to influence international companies like Yahoo and Google, etc. and to focus critically on their kneeling for the authorities, eagerly trying to achieve full access to the huge, Chinese market.  Critical voices outside China should be activated and supported.

The western world must be aware that the outcome of advocacy may be limited.  Changes in Chinese society will develop as an inner process, not through pressure from the outside world.  For the Chinese, it is important not to «loose face», consequently «noisy» campaigns may often be counterproductive.  These cultural differences must be considered.

«Quiet diplomacy» may work far better than official diplomacy.  Norwegian politicians have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their talks with the authorities in China, and through Norwegian media one gets the impression that Norway is important and may influence China.  The western world should be aware of the fact that economic development is more important than human rights to the Chinese at present.  The Chinese countryside is still in the middle ages, and the contrast to the high-tech cities is incomprehensible.

Conclusions and recommendations

Most people in China are now better off, but there is a wide gap between the extremely poor and the incomprehensibly rich.  A modern Chinese city dweller easily spends NOK 3.000 (500 euro) on a dinner, whereas NOK 212 (about 25 euros) constitutes the yearly income for a poor farmer.

Economic relaxation and development and new technology will be of great importance for future development in China.  The curbing of free expression has already started.  So far, 70 cases of harassment against foreign journalists in Beijing have been registered.  Tibet is far worse off than China, hence the Olympics may be even more important for Tibet than for China.

There is also an internal migration taking place in China.  Over the past 30 years the Chinese have migrated from west to east and 250 million people will follow.  In this case the valves have to be gradually opened to allow for this huge process which will take place over the next 20 – 30 years. Consequently, our expectations regarding what we may be able to accomplish must be realistic.

Some elements that may be influential:

1. The wide gap between the poor and the rich
2. As very few people will benefit from economic growth, there will be more focus on free expression and freedom of organzation in future.
3. People wishing to work for these rights are under strict control and repression at present.  There will be no sudden, total change, but we can observe that several structures are changing.
4. Strangely enough, harassment may be regarded as a positive sign, because it shows that expressions are being taken seriously.
5. The gradual curbing of human rights has already started. It is important to stress that anyone wanting to influence China in connection with the 2008 Olympics should start today.

Translated into English from the Norwegian minutes by Carl Morten Iversen

Tunisia press release: The Siege Holds

PRESS RELEASE

11 April 2007

Fourth TMG Report Launched Worldwide
“Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds”

In its fourth report on freedom of expression conditions in Tunisia, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) concludes that it is still increasingly important that free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large still keep monitoring developments in Tunisia.

“Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds” is the fourth TMG report since February 2005 and is based on a recent (28 February – 4 March) mission to Tunisia.  The report will be launched worldwide on 11 April at a press conference in Cairo hosted by the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), as well as at an event hosted by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) in Washington. The report, available in English, French and Arabic, will also be launched in Geneva and Paris.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. The new report states that “lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.” This includes calling for the liberation of unjustly jailed human rights activist and lawyer Mohamed Abbou.

The TMG is a group of 16 freedom of expression organisations in the IFEX network.  The recent mission was chaired by Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN. Other members of the delegation were Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association (IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely.

The report is available on-line on the TMG websites at:
– English: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/IFEXTMGreport_April2007.doc
– French: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/rapportduIFEXTMG_avril2007.doc
-Arabic: http://www.hrinfo.net/ifex/wsis/

For further information about the report, contact:

Carl Morten Iversen, Norwegian PEN, at tel: + 47 2247 9220/926 88 023 or e-mail:cmivers@online.no or pen@norskpen.no (English)
Alexis Krikorian, IPA, at tel: + 41 22830 1080/7921 45 530 or e-mail: krikorian@ipa-uie.org(English or French)
Gamal Eid, HRinfo, at tel: +202 524 9544 (Arabic) or e-mail: info@hrinfo.net orgamal4eid@yahoo.com

Members of the IFEX-TMG are:

Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), The Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers’ Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK

Høyt aktivitetsnivå i Afghansk PEN

Afghan PEN Activity Report July 2006

 

Documentation & new members
Afghan PEN centre has now 511 registered members from all over Afghanistan most of whom have received official Afghan PEN ID cards.

Registration of PEN
Afghan PEN was registered with the justice ministry. Based on the new law, organizations that are registered with the justice ministry do not have the right to receive funding from international sources, which means we also have to get ourselves registered with the information & culture ministry.

Publications
The following four books have been published:
–    Gul-e-Doody, Nadia Anjuman’s poetry collection
–    Aimwarg, a collection of poetry in Pashayi language
–    Zangal au zala bezu, a short story for children in Pashtu, by Ajmal Torman
–    Nilu, a collection of short stories by Belqis Makiz

200 copies of each of the published books have been distributed to the public libraries and university. 18 copies of Gul-e-Doody 21 copies of Aimwarg have been sold during the events at the house. Two other Collections of Persian and Pashtu short stories are being published.

The PEN magazine’s Pashtu and Persian versions have been submitted for publication but have not yet been published for technical reasons.  A brochure on Afghan PEN and freedom of expression have been published in 1000 copies.

Networking
a. Based on the conference held in May, over 200 writers from the provinces joined the Afghan PEN.

b. The Afghan PEN held recitals for 8 writers from Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kandahar, Khost and Herat.

c. The Youth Writers’ Home was officially opened. It has 5 rooms, and is located near the university. Civil Society & Human Rights Network (CSHRN) will pay the monthly rent cost of $270 for one year. The Youth Writers’ have has 118 members so far. Youth writers hold their own regular book reading, poetry recital, short story reading and critique. Literary workshops are held two days a week.

d. Goroh-e-Talaya-ha (pioneers’ group) was established. After several meetings with women’s rights activists, woman writers and journalists, a group of 37 women was formed and named «Talaya-ha». This group will work with the Afghan PEN to promote women’s literature and discover literary talents among Afghan women. Talaya-ha group is formed of university students, University lecturers, literary programme runners, and women’s rights activists.

Literary Workshops and Conferences
Poetry techniques and short story techniques workshop was held for one month with participation of 27 youths.

Satire techniques workshop is still going on.

Literary criticism workshop was held for one day for 108 students of literature faculty.

Conference on the development of women’s literature held for one day in Setara Restaurant for 311 participants including 121 women. 15 articles were read in this conference and at the end there was a round table discussion on women’s literature in Afghanistan.

Literature against violence conference was held for one day, with participation of 211 writers and journalists at the Keshmeshak restaurant. The participants discussed about the role of literature in conflict resolution and it was agreed that in the near future a group of 100 writers and singers will go to the provinces and hold literary functions to speak against the culture of violence.

Children’s Literature
«Ghuchi mega chi mega» was a programme held for children. Poets read their poems for children.

«Let’s write for children!» was a one-hour round table on Afghan national TV with seven writers.

Mirror Day (Roz-e-Ayina)
Najib Roshan (General director of Afghan Radio TV) was summoned to the court of PEN and answered the questions and criticism by the participants. Mr Roshan accepted several suggestions of the Afghan PEN to bring improvement in the programmes of the national TV.

Appreciation Day (Roz-e-Sepaas)
The Afghan PEN held a grand function to express appreciation to the veteran poet Haidari Wojoodi who has worked in the field of poetry for 46 years.

An other grand function was held for appreciation to the Pashtu ghazals king Pir mohamad Karwan. Karwan is the most effective poet of Pashtu language.

Afghan PEN TV programme
Afghan PEN makes a literary TV programme for the national TV. 2 programme has already been aired. Afghan PEN will also make two programmes a month (Pahtu and Persian) about the members of the Afghan PEN and their literary work.

Literary events in the hourse:
In June and July to date, the Afghan PEN has held 41 events (poetry recitals, short story reading, literary criticism, satire, and music programmes). There is a small event in the house almost every day.

Prizes
The Afghan PEN has announced the following prizes:

Translation prize, a prize of $1000 has been announced for a book on literary theories. The amount will be given by Negisa foundation.

The amount $9000 has been announced for three books by women. This will be paid by Negisa.

The amount $1000 has been announced for two poetry books for children. This will also be paid by Negisa foundation.

Defence of freedom of expression
Balkh TV journalists had problem of censorship imposed by government officials. Samay Hamed, Shafiq Payam, and Najib Roshan went to the province and had a meeting with the governor. The problem has been solved now.

Essa Behsham (a poet living in Baghlan province) had written something on religious issues that had outraged the mullahs there. Samay Hamed had a meeting with Baghlan governor and he expressed his commitment to help the writer who has now gone back to his city after escaping away for sometime.

Some writers came to the Afghan PEN complaining about censorship in that city. Representative of the Afghan PEN met with the writers and the government officials there. They all promised to protect freedom of expression.

Tredje Tunisiarapport: Løgner og bedrag

Report of the Tunisia Monitoring Group following the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS): Deception and Lies

Freedom of Expression in Tunisia Remains under Siege Six Months After the WSIS

May 2006

Executive Summary

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) is a global network of 72 national, regional, and international freedom of expression organisations.

This report is based on a fact-finding mission to Tunisia undertaken from 18 to 22 April 2006 by members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG) to follow up on progress made on the status of freedom of expression in Tunisia after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunisia in November 2005. The report is also based on information gathered by phone interviews and exchange of email made after the mission’s date.

The mission was composed of one representative each from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo), the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC).

Other members of the IFEX-TMG are: ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Index on Censorship, Journaliste en Danger (JED), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), World Association of Newspapers (WAN), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, International Publishers Association (IPA), Norwegian PEN, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

The principal findings of the mission were:

·    The continuation of the imprisonment of individuals related to expression of their opinions or media activities.
·    Blocking of websites, including news and information websites.
·    Restrictions on the freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be legally established, and to hold meetings.
·    Restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with political police surveillance, harassment, and intimidation.
·    Press self-censorship and lack of diversity of content in the media, especially in the state-owned papers, radio and TV stations.
·    Attempts to smear the reputations of activists, which are unlawful actions that are not being investigated.
·    Official harassment of attorneys and judges who press for independence of the judiciary.
·    Censorship of books through the legal submission procedure.

The IFEX-TMG is concerned that the situation of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and associated human rights issues remain far below international norms and conventions to which Tunisia is a signatory, despite Tunisian government assertions to the contrary.

In particular we urge:

1. The immediate release of prisoner of opinion Mohammed Abbou and many others who remain imprisoned for their religious and political beliefs.

2. The termination of all forms of harassment of the six cyber dissidents known as the Youth of Zarzis  and Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr who have been recently released, as well as other released prisoners of opinion, and political and human rights activists.

3. The Tunisian government to stop censoring books and blocking websites and Internet communication.

4. International organisations not to collude with the Tunisian government’s attempts to cover up violations taking place in Tunisia, and to hold the Tunisian state responsible and pressure it to abide by its international obligations.

A. INRODUCTION:

This is the third report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG), which follows the fifth fact-finding mission to Tunisia by members of the group from 18 to 22 April 2006, followed by phone interviews, five months after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunisia in November 2005.

In the report we have noted our concern with the deteriorating conditions of freedom of expression and related human rights issues in Tunisia, particularly regarding independent organisations , and the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer, Mohammed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles posted on the Internet.

Five months after the WSIS, violations of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and other basic human rights are still rampant. We thus urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the recommendations we are making in this report to demonstrate its real and immediate intent to remove any obstacles confronting Tunisian citizens from enjoying their inherent human rights, as stipulated in international agreements to which Tunisia is a signatory.

During the latest mission, members of the TMG met with public officials and members of the opposition, government supported organisations, independent civil society organisations, the bar association, lawyers, judges, human rights defenders, and journalists. A member of the IFEX-TMG mission held a phone interview with a representative of the Tunisian Association for Journalists (AJT). TMG members welcome the dialogue with government representatives, in which we can engage—and will continue to engage—in an open exchange of views.

The TMG mission met with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, and the Director General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE), Oussama Romdhani. Despite the fact that the IFEX-TMG welcomed the minor improvements that have been made since WSIS II, such as the release of scores of political prisoners in February, serious concerns remain with regards to other unfulfilled obligations incumbent upon the Tunisian government.

The IFEX-TMG voiced its deep concern about holding the second phase of WSIS in Tunis in November 2005. But many, including high-ranking UN officials, thought that the decision to hold WSIS II in Tunis would prompt the Tunisian government to improve its poor human rights record and to loosen its grip on the media and the Internet. Unfortunately such expectations were not met.

We call on the international community to recognise the serious nature of violations taking place in Tunisia and pressure the Tunisian government to cease ‘unlawful’ practices perpetrated against virtually all independent voices. The international community must hold Tunisian authorities accountable to their international obligations.

In the following sections we set out the principal developments observed by the IFEX-TMG mission on 18 to 22 April 2006.

B. FACTS ON THE GROUND

1. Prisoners of opinion

The IFEX-TMG welcomed the release of scores of prisoners of opinion during President Ben Ali’s latest pardon in February. In previous reports of the IFEX-TMG we recommended the release of prisoners jailed for expressing their opinions. We, in particular, recommended the release of Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly publication 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 the release of the six cyber dissidents known as the Youth of Zarzis who, following unfair trials, had been sentenced to heavy prison terms allegedly for using the Internet to prepare to commit terrorist acts.

We hereby acknowledge the release of Hamadi Jebali and the Youth of Zarzis, but we are seriously concerned with the continual harassment they face.

In a phone interview with Hamadi Jebali, he confirmed that he still faces serious harassments. Plain clothes political police are constantly monitoring him and his family and systematically harassing anyone he contacts.

«I often feel that I was safer in prison where I spent 15 years and a half than now with all this harassment, intimidation and attempts to deny me and my family the right to a quiet and decent life», he said. On 7 June, Jebali and his wife are due to appear before a magistrate allegedly for attempting to bribe a prison guard before the end of his lengthy and unfair imprisonment.

The IFEX-TMG mission is also concerned with the imprisonment of Mohammed Abbou and many other prisoners of opinion.

During a meeting with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, IFEX-TMG mission members were told that that there are no prisoners in jail whose only crimes are political, a statement which seemed to confirm allegations of fabrication of criminal charges against political dissidents and human rights activists.

Mohammed Abbou:

The case of Mohammed Abbou is one of a central issue relating to freedom of expression in Tunisia. The manner by which Abbou was arrested, tried and imprisoned only reveals the extent to which independent voices across different Tunisian sectors are under attack.

During Abbou’s trial the investigative judge ordered the removal of the leader of the defence team – who approached the court as the head of the Bar Association to organise the defence. When the lawyer refused to leave he was physically assaulted by police. Lawyers and Abbou’s wife, Samia Abbou, were attacked by plain-clothed policemen, who had been accused of «taking over the palace of justice» , while attempting to enter the court. Expressing their profound fear regarding the integrity of justice in Tunisia and the independence of judges, the Tunisian Magistrate Association published a statement condemning such behaviour, an action they continue to pay a high price for.

On 28 April 2005, Abbou was found guilty of publishing statements «likely to disturb public order» and for «defaming the judicial process.» He was also found guilty of a separate alleged offence of «violence» in 2002 against a female lawyer apparently close to the government. However, his arrest on 1 March 2005 came less than 24 hours after a blocked Tunisian news website  ran an opinion piece in which Abbou criticised President Ben Ali for inviting Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to attend the WSIS in Tunis.

He was sentenced to three and a half years of imprisonment. The Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, explained that the alleged violence against a female attorney was the main reason for his imprisonment. The appeals court confirmed his prison sentence on 10 June 2005 following another trial, described as unfair by local and international human rights groups and Tunis-based Western diplomats.

Despite the fact that the Minister of Justice and Human Rights has insisted that Tunisian laws allow criticism in the presence of evidence, when lawyers submitted official documents proving the practice of torture in Tunisian prisons, they were not registered or recognised by the Judge .

Mohammed Abbou’s physical assault of the female lawyer in 2002 is highly questionable. Members of the mission were told by witnesses that she was sent to provoke him during a meeting of young lawyers. She reportedly grabbed his shirt tearing the buttons off. Understandably, he pushed her away. In addition, members of the mission find highly disputable the fact that it took the authorities, according to Minister Tekkari, three years to build a case of physical assault.

Abbou is currently imprisoned in the city of Le Kef, 170 km southwest of the capital, Tunis, near the Tunisian-Algerian border.

Abbou’s family has submitted several requests for transferring him to another prison closer to his family. Such requests have fallen on deaf ears .

Every Thursday, Samia Abbou, is accompanied by at least one lawyer to visit her husband in Le Kef. The drive is three hours long and in winter the roads can be very risky. Abbou’s children do not visit their father except on school holidays as the trip to Le Kef consumes most of the day.

There have been several reports of Samia Abbou being harassed by traffic police on her travels to Le Kef. According to witnesses they are usually stopped more than once, and one time they were stopped 12 times. At one instance, it took the police over 40 minutes to check car registration papers. It is strongly believed that these harassments are attempts to delay Samia Abbou from her visitation hours.

During an interview with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, the IFEX-TMG mission requested to visit Mohammed Abbou in prison. However visitation was denied on the basis that Tunisian laws allow only close members of the family and lawyers to visit a prisoner. Members of the mission later found that the law allows, under special circumstances, visitation of friends  if the prison director deems it helpful to the morale of a prisoner whose family does not live close by. When mission members attempted to meet with the prison director, the members’ passports were taken but the mission was told 10 minutes later that the prison director was not on the premise and that no one else could authorise the visit with Mohammed Abbou.

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission accompanied Samia Abbou on her weekly trip to Le Kef and were surprised that she was allowed only a 15-minute visitation. Lawyers and activists joining the three-hour trip, in addition to Samia Abbou herself, confirmed that during previous visits she was allowed a mere 2 minutes per visit.  This is harassment when a 6-hour trip is required and 2 minutes are allotted to a visiting spouse.

Members of the mission strongly believe that the 15-minute visit was exceptional due to the presence of monitors. Upon the departure of the mission’s members from Tunisia, it was reported that Samia Abbou was only allowed 2 minutes in her following visit.

Mohammed Abbou stopped the hunger strike he began on 11 March 2006 to protest his prison conditions. However, he still complains of maltreatment. He does not have access to medical care. To protest his dire prison conditions, Abbou refuses to sleep on a mattress until prison conditions improve.

We find statements made by officials at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to be contradictory that Abbou is kept in the distant Le Kef prison because conditions there are much better than the prison in the capital, Tunis.

Youth of Zarzis:

The IFEX-TMG welcomed the release in February of Aberrazak Bourguiba, Hamza Mahroug, Abdel Ghafar Guiza, Ridha Belhaj Ibrahim, Omar Chelendi, and Aymen Mcharek, known as the Youth of Zarzis. They were all imprisoned in 2004 for the following charges:
·    Constitution of a gang for purposes of preparing and committing attempts on person and goods;
·    Preparation, transport and possession of explosives, devices and materials intended for making of such explosives;
·    Theft;
·    Attempted theft; and
·    Holding unauthorised meetings.

It is reported to members of the mission that the evidence alleged to have been seized has never been exhibited to the defendants, whose files their lawyers have never been able to consult.

The members of the IFEX-TMG mission were able to meet with only one of the Youth of Zarzis who travelled to Tunis for the meeting. Others were prevented from leaving Zarzis. It was noted that approximately 15 plain-clothed policemen were surrounding the headquarters of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) where the mission members were meeting with the dissidents .

Omar Chelendi, now 24 years old, was arrested when he was 20 years and 3 months old. He was released during the latest pardon made by the President on 27 February 2006. During the interview he spoke of dire prison conditions. There are serious claims that the Youth of Zarzis were exposed to harsh torture, including beating and electric shocks.

According to Chelendi, during interrogation he was beaten with a board that had nails protruding from it. One of the nails entered his left knee and broke off.  When he requested in prison that the nail be removed, he was given pain medication. Yet the mission members were advised by the Minister of Justice and Human Rights that medical care within Tunisian prisons is exemplary, and that if a released prisoner requires medical attention but can not afford it, the government will provide it free of charge.  No government official has offered to provide Chelendi with the necessary medical care to remove the nail.  He added that he and the others were hanged by their hands behind their back. Omar Rached, another member of the Youth of Zarzis, was reportedly tortured, and was prevented from leaving Zarzis to meet with the mission. One of the Youth of Zarzis had his penis slammed in a drawer, and Chelendi says his friend urinated blood for 3 days.

In a phone interview, Omar Rached, who was not allowed to leave Zarzis, he complained of the continual harassment that he has to face on a daily basis. He also said that he is not allowed to return to school. Every time he enters an Internet café he is harassed. Rached spoke also of torture in prison. He said that he still suffers from cigarette burns and electric shock marks on his body.

The Youth of Zarzis have been denied matriculation for higher education. Every day they are required to go to the police station at Zarzis to sign in and must salute the police officers. They are thus prevented from leaving Zarzis. When Chelendi went to Tunis seeking medical attention for his knee (his mother is Portuguese and so Chelendi thus is allowed to leave Zarzis) he was harassed and has received several threatening calls on his mobile telephone and in the hotel.

For six of Tunisia’s youth, life has become hell. Now they cannot continue their education or move around Tunisia freely. They live in a constant state of fear. A good example of such fear is the fact that Chelendi is afraid to enter any Internet café.  «I don’t mind his going if he wants to go to prison again,» said his father.

Chelendi’s family has applied for a Portuguese passport for him, and he plans to travel there next month. He still considers Tunisia his home and does not plan to abandon it.

Ali Ramzi Bettibi

Ali Ramzi Bettibi was arrested on 15 March 2005 while he was in an Internet café and sentenced to four-years imprisonment for re-posting on a website an article written by an Islamic Jihad movement promising bloodshed if Sharon attended the WSIS in Tunisia. Despite the fact that members of IFEX stand strongly against hate speech and abject calls to violence, they are strong advocates of freedom of expression.

While Oussama Romdhani, Director General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency claimed that Bettibi was in prison for posting a «threat saying that Tunisian streets would be awash in blood if Sharon comes to Tunisia», Bettibi’s brother insisted that these words were not his brother’s. According to Bettibi’s brother, the article was taken off the website of an Islamic Jihad movement and re-posted to shed light on the extent of opposition to Sharon’s visit to Tunisia.

On the other hand, there are serious concerns regarding the manner by which Bettibi was arrested and sentenced.  «He was kidnapped rather than arrested. There was no court order for his arrest. Police entered our home with no search warrant and confiscated many of his books and CDs,» said Bettibi’s brother.

There are claims that Bettibi was ruthlessly tortured during interrogations. «They put him on an electric chair and threatened to use it,» Bettibi’s brother said.

Bettibi has been on hunger strike since 23 March 2006. He went on strike for not being released after being told that he was among prisoners pardoned by President Ben Ali. He is also protesting maltreatment and verbal abuse in prison. Bettibi is currently in voluntary solitary confinement where he does not have a mattress to sleep on.

«His health is deteriorating drastically. During my last visit he vomited blood,» Bettibi’s brother told members of the IFEX-TMG mission.

Despite his deteriorating health, he is not provided with the necessary medical care.

2. Internet Blocking

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government representatives, particularly with the Director General of the ATCE, Oussama Romdhani. The January 2005 TMG mission undertook technical tests  on selected Tunisian Internet Service Providers. They identified systematic Internet blocking which the IFEX-TMG believes to be operated using Smartfilter software.  Internet blocking was applied to wide categories of sites, but also including specific Tunisian government-defined URLs. At least two of the websites affiliated to the three members of the IFEX-TMG mission were blocked within Tunisia (www.hrinfo.net and www.amisnet.org).

Romdhani insisted that blocked websites are mostly anonymous websites, «used as venue to slander and smear the reputation of private individuals, and include threats from terrorist organisations».

Justification for blocking websites were that the «government wants to protect the people from incitement of evil.»

However, the IFEX-TMG mission is concerned with the blocking of several websites that do not carry any calls to violence. Hate speech is often in the eye of the beholder. Websites of local, even registered, so-called legal associations and political parties are blocked.

Neila Charchour Hachicha, founder of the Liberal Mediterranean party, which is still not registered, complains that the party’s website  was blocked after posting a statement issued by the 18th of October Movement.  Only after a statement was issued by the US Department of State was the censorship on her website lifted.  Recently the party’s website has been blocked again.

In addition to blocking websites, most of the visited activists complained of not having Internet access. Even though several organisations and activists have a DSL line, they cannot access any website from their computers.

Some members of the mission attempted to access the Internet from the CNLT’s headquarters but failed to open any website. Similar complaints were made by Rached Kachana, editor-in-Chief of Al-Maoukif newspaper, and Neila Charchour Hachicha.

3. Independent organisations

The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH)

In the previous IFEX-TMG report it was noted that the LTDH was prevented from holding its Sixth Congress, scheduled for 9-11 September 2005. During this mission, IFEX-TMG members were informed that the LTDH was banned from holding a solidarity meeting with the Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) on 2 December 2005. The office was surrounded by political police. «They did not allow us to enter here at LTDH headquarters,» said Mokhtar Trifi, LTDH president.

The origin of LTDH’s problem goes back to divisions among its members and heads of its branches. Currently, there are 32 court cases against the elected LTDH board. Even though the schisms taking place within LTDH might seem an internal affair, the manner by which plain-clothed political policemen have interfered to forcefully prevent any meetings from convening raises questions about the extent to which Tunisian authorities are involved in this matter.

LTDH’s board has tried endlessly to solve the problem peacefully. Directly after the WSIS was convened, President Ben Ali asked the head of the Supreme Authority for Human Rights and Liberty (a government appointed council) to submit recommendations in a report on what is needed to improve the political and human rights conditions in Tunisia. According to Mokhtar Trifi, LTDH was among the first organisations to submit their recommendations. To date, no report has been submitted to the Tunisian President.

A committee of former ministers and heads of LTDH was formed in December 2005 and met until March 2006. The committee looked into the matter in dispute and made proposals for both parties. The government-affiliated group refused these proposals.

Whenever the case of LTDH is raised before government officials, it is claimed that the matter is of an internal dispute. «If that is the case then why do plain-clothed political police interfere in our LTDH affairs?» questioned Trifi.

LTDH has decided to hold a meeting on 27-28 May 2006. As soon as the decision was made a court case was filed against them and a court order was issued to stop the meeting. The IFEX-TMG mission hopes that this meeting will be convened without any police intervention.

The mission met also with a member of the LTDH opposing group. According to Raouf Jemal, President of the LTDH Sejoumi (neighbourhood south of Tunis) Section, the reason behind the internal conflict is that the LTDH board took the decision to dissolve 18 sections in 2002, reducing LTDH’s sections from 41 to 23 sections. Seven of the 18 sections have taken the matter to court.

Jemal claims that the 7 sections agree that there are external pressures exerted on LTDH’s steering committee to make such a decision.

«We can’t specify who and what, and there is nothing concrete to blame, but it’s a common opinion among us,» he told the IFEX-TMG mission.

The IFEX-TMG urges all conflict parties to work hard to find solutions to their problem without allowing Tunisian authorities to interfere in the affairs of LTDH.

The Tunisian Association of Magistrates (AMT):

Without an independent judiciary, Tunisian citizens have no guarantees for their rights.

In the September 2005 report, the IFEX-TMG noted that numerous attempts have been made to destabilise the AMT and to encourage a minority group of judges close to the government to take control of the AMT. This happened after the AMT’s democratically-elected board spoke out against attacks on lawyers following the arrest of their colleague Mohammed Abbou in March 2005. Subsequently, the elected members of the AMT Board have been denied their right to freedom of assembly and expression.

The April 2006 IFEX-TMG mission met with:
·    Ahmed Rahmouni, AMT President;
·    Kelthoum Kennou, AMT Secretary General;
·    Wassila Kaabi, member of AMT Executive Bureau;
·    Leila Bahria, member of the AMT Administrative Committee; and
·    Raoudha Karafi, member of the AMT Executive Bureau.

According to Ahmed Rahmouni, the conflict between the AMT and the Tunisian government started when the current board was elected in 2004 through direct elections, banning the use of proxies to vote.

AMT’s statement condemning the unfortunate incidents that took place in the Palace of Justice during Mohammed Abbou’s trial was evidently the trigger that led to government attempts to destabilise the association.

All of the active judges in the association are harassed on nearly a daily basis. Many of the judges were transferred to court districts far from their place of residence, some as far as 300 km away from Tunis. Work plans are imposed upon them that occasionally require their constant supervision, «day and night.» They are hounded about the number of hours they work, when it is well known that the majority of judges’ work is done off the bench.

Members of the AMT board that we have met have complained of constant political police surveillance. According to one of the judges, she was called in by the prosecutor who told her exactly who went into her office and left, who she spoke to and who she did not. «This breaches the immunity and independence of judges,» she said.

Active judges have been repeatedly questioned on issues they find to be very trivial. They believe that the aim of the questioning is to create fear among other judges and to compile files against these judges to be used when necessary. While it is an unwritten rule among Tunisian judges to have the privilege of going to work whenever they see it necessary, the “activist” judges were questioned about their attendance while others were not. Four judges, two of whom are members of the AMT’s Administrative Committee, had their salaries reduced for absences.

«I am afraid that the constant intimidation will lead to disciplinary procedures that will threaten our continuation within the judicial system by either being fired or forced to retire early,» Rahmouni said.

18th of October Movement

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission met with 7 members of the board of the 18th of October Movement.

As the mission was on its way to meet members of the board of the 18th of October Movement, it received a phone call saying that the board members had been prevented from entering the headquarters of one of the opposition political parties. Upon the arrival of the IFEX-TMG mission, a large number of political policemen dispersed at the sight of the mission representatives. During the interview, the seventh member phoned to say that he was being forcefully banned from entering the building. Immediately, both Francesco Diasio of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters and Sally Sami of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information rushed downstairs to see what was happening. A plain-clothed policeman released his firm grip on the arm of the interviewee as soon as he saw the two IFEX-TMG representatives approach him.

The board of the Movement was established on 4 December 2005, two weeks after the WSIS was convened, with the main demands of freedom of expression, freedom of press, and freedom of association.

Since the group’s establishment, the government has reportedly intentionally influenced media not to cover their activities. The only exception is the small-circulation opposition weekly Al-Maoukif newspaper whose editor is a member of this group.

Members of the Movement believe that there are two main reasons why the government does not want any media coverage of them. First, the movement includes members of the Islamic movement in Tunisia. Second, the general sentiment is that this movement is the first real attempt of a group composed of different inclinations and trends.

Besides attempts to prevent any meeting, every time the Movement tries to hold a popular event, police surround the venue of the event and prevent popular participation.

4. Journalists and Dissidents:

Journalists still suffer from massive restrictions on their work. According to Lotfi Hajji, an independent journalist and chair of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT), after the WSIS, there has been a total crackdown on journalists. «It became impossible for us to meet and we were forced to work in clandestine conditions,» said Hajji.

Those journalists supporting the SJT, which the government still refuses to recognise, face daily harassment in an attempt to lower their morale. So far 160 journalists have signed the petition for the establishment of the Syndicate. The Tunisian government sees SJT as a political party rather than a legitimate journalists’ union, commenting that AJT (the government-approved journalists’ union) has approximately four times as many members.

Lotfi Hajji is under close surveillance. The members of the mission noted that a car was following Hajji to his meeting with the group.

On 11 May, Hajji was interrogated by the police about an alleged secret meeting he held on 27 April at his home in Bizerte. The police held him for four hours before releasing him. According to Hajji, this latest episode of police harassment has something to do with his activities as head of the SJT and its new report on attacks on the press, in addition to his active membership in the LTDH.

The case of Slim Boukhdeir, who ended on 9 May a five-week hunger strike which he started to protest being fired from Al-Shorouq Newspaper, remains unclear for the IFEX-TMG mission members. Despite the fact that Al-Shorouq is free to choose not to renew employment, many activists in Tunisia believe that the decision to fire Boukhdeir was influenced by the government. Boukhdeir is known for his critical articles published in Al-Arabiya.net.

Besides noting multiple cases of Tunisian government harassment of independent journalists, members of the IFEX-TMG mission are extremely concerned with the return of the use of tactics which fabricate moral scandals against political activists in an attempt to smear their reputation.

Mohammed Mokhtar Jelali

Mokhtar Al-Jelali is the husband of Naziha Rajiba (also known as Om Zied), a human rights activist and a journalist who herself suffers from persecution.

Jelali, a respected lawyer and former Member of Parliament, has fallen victim to attempts to smear his reputation starting in March 2006.

Jelali recently resigned from a minor opposition political party loyal to President Ben Ali. His resignation came after he attempted in vain to encourage his party, the Democratic Unionist Union, to act as a true opposition party.

Early last March both Rajiba and Jelali received anonymous phone calls threatening that Jelali’s reputation would be smeared if he did not pay 100,000 Tunisian Dinars. Callers claimed that they had pornographic video cassettes and photographs of Jelali.

«The government has the necessary equipment to fabricate pornographic material. They did that in the early 1990s,» Rajiba said.

According to activists interviewed, such methods were used in the early 1990s against former Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali and Islamist figures by a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Interior by the name of Mohamed Ali Ganzoui. It has been reported to the IFEX-TMG mission that this official has recently been installed as secretary of state for security.  Now these severe harassment measures appear again, applied against those who stand for freedoms enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution but are suppressed by political police. The tapes are being distributed again. Both Rajiba and Jelali have received cassettes and photographs mailed to them from France.

A complaint was filed with the Public Prosecutor as soon as the threats were made; however, to date, no investigation has begun. Officials have denied in the press that this issue might have any political basis.

During the IFEX-TMG’s meeting with ATCE’s Director General Romdhani, he insisted that the Tunisian government is against assailing the privacy of anyone. «It’s in our constitution,» he said.

Naziha Rajiba also confirmed that in 2004 a law was ratified by President Ben Ali prohibiting the exploitation of a private aspect of one’s life for any goal whatsoever.

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission find it surprising that at the same time as government officials and Tunisian legislations uphold the sanctity of one’s personal life, that no action has been taken by the prosecutor to investigate the attempts to smear Jelali’s reputation.

Neila Charchour Hachicha

Neila Charchour Hachicha’s father was involved in politics. When she told him that she will eventually follow his path, he advised her not to go to prison for anything but holding on to her principles and opinions. When she asked him whether imprisonment will definitely be her fate if she enters into politics, he told her yes.

«He was right,» she said.

Four years ago Hachicha applied to register a political party. She cannot officially establish her party because government authorities have refused to hand her the receipt that proves that she has applied for registration. In the meanwhile she set up a website.

When she posted a statement made by the 18th of October Movement, her website was blocked.
Her major crime was that she spoke of the situation in Tunisia when she took the platform during a conference held by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, in the United States. Three weeks after she returned to Tunisia, charges were made against her husband in a real estate case. Her husband is now facing a possibility of 10-months imprisonment.

Political police, according to eye witnesses, stole her car. When she filed a complaint, she was accused of defaming the police.

On her daughter’s engagement night, she received phone calls from guests telling her that they were told not to attend the party. According to her, plain-clothed political policemen surrounded her house. A few days after the engagement party, fabricated immoral pictures of her daughter were distributed among a wide sector of people.

5. Broadcast Pluralism

The IFEX-TMG has consistently requested during all of its missions to receive the written criteria for applying for a license to operate an independent, private radio or television station. The IFEX-TMG has been told that since private broadcasting is in the early stages, such criteria are in development.  The IFEX-TMG requested during prior missions and requests again to know the criteria for selecting the applicants for the two private radio stations and one television station that have been authorised.

It is incumbent upon the Tunisian government – that claims to be pluralistic – to assure that all radio and television station applications will be treated fairly and that the process will be widely distributed in advance, completely transparent, pluralistic and apolitical. Truly independent bodies should be selected to handle frequency allocation matters as well as the license renewal process.  Licenses should not be granted solely on the basis of the prospective owner’s close relationships within the government. Radio and television stations should be encouraged to cover local, regional and international news without fear of censorship or self-censorship.

6. Press Freedom

At the same time as members of the IFEX-TMG mission welcome the decision to completely abolish the depot legal,  there are still concerns of continuous restrictions imposed on the free press.

According to Rachid Khechana, editor in chief of the weekly opposition Al-Maoukif newspaper, opposition and independent newspapers are still confronting many challenges imposed by the government.

«Yes, we don’t have to submit our newspapers to be reviewed before they are distributed, but they are collected again from the market,» he said.

On a random basis both Mark Bench, of the World Press Freedom Committee, and Sally Sami, of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, asked several news-stands if they have Al-Maoukif newspaper. Sellers did not know the newspaper.

According to Khechana, only major book stores would have the newspaper but will only sell it to known customers as they fear getting into trouble.

In an interview with Romdhani of ATCE, he claimed that there have been advances and measures taken since the last IFEX-TMG mission in September 2005.

«There has been an increase in subsidy given to opposition newspapers, and opposition members have been introduced into membership of the Higher Communication Council (CSC), an advisory body on media and communication,» he said.

He also said that a fund to aid journalists and other media professionals, a project demanded by the government-controlled Tunisian Journalist Association (AJT), is being considered. The IFEX-TMG mission members say that the best action the Tunisian government can do is to cease forever the political police’s intimidation of journalists and allow them to write what they wish, as journalists do in any democratic country.

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission also noted more balanced local news coverage in very small circulation newspapers – incidentally, unavailable in and unknown to kiosks around Tunis. However, such progress was not noticed in the larger circulation government-controlled newspapers.

Independent journalists and activists, on the other hand, report that the government is still maintaining its grip on newspapers.

«Our press has just one rule and function: to glorify our president, to give him the illusion of a superman, of a genius politician, a man who is full of wisdom, and that everything in our country is going very well because he is there,» said Mohamed Talbi, President of the Observatory for Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC), an IFEX member based in Tunisia.  “A journalist is free to glorify our leader without restrictions. Freedom of the press is freedom of glorification in Tunisia,» he added.

It has been noted from documents presented to members of the mission that the General Media Administration authorises what press releases are to be printed in newspapers.

While Romdhani insisted that independent newspapers should seek private advertisements rather than to continue demanding public advertisement and subsidy, Khechana says that private advertisements are influenced by the government. Private companies are punished, he said, if they purchase ads in opposition newspapers, usually in the form of following up on unpaid taxes.

There are also serious concerns about government intervention in the publishing of statements made by activists and opposition political parties. These claims were made by the AMT, Khechana, and several other members of the Tunisian civil society.

Journalists’ Press Credentials

The issue of press cards for professional journalists remains a matter of concern for the IFEX-TMG mission members. The committee in charge of granting professional press cards is state-controlled and constitutes one of the serious obstacles of true press freedom in Tunisia.

According to Romdhani, based on a Tunisian law dated 15 November 1975, “professional journalist identification cards” are granted by a committee chaired by a senior official from the secretariat of state for information, and including three representatives of all national  media and three representatives of professional journalists from among representative media associations.

The three representatives of ‘all national media’ within this committee are appointed by the government. They are often members of the state-run Tunisian Association of Newspapers Editors, which was expelled in 1997 from the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) for its lack of action while press freedom was under constant attack. The three representatives of professional journalists are members of the board of the state-run Association of Tunisian Journalists (AJT), which ironically awarded President Ben Ali in 2004 its Gold Quill for Press Freedom. As a result, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) suspended AJT’s membership.

It is strongly believed that journalists critical of the government or who oppose receiving government instructions on what and how to write, like Sihem Ben Sedrine, Naziha Rajiba, Lotfi Hajji, Slah Jourchi, Mohammed Fourati, Lotfi Hidouri, and others are arbitrarily denied their press cards. Ironically, according to reliable sources in Tunisia, many who have nothing to do with journalism, including plain clothes political policemen, are often granted press cards.

It is ironic that the findings of the IFEX-TMG mission, with regards to press freedom, are in total contradiction with President Ben Ali’s statement on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

He said that freedom of expression and that of the press are «fundamental rights of the individual.» He added that «the diversification of the media landscape will be pursued and that the spaces of expressions will be enriched by the opening up of the media scene to the private sector.»

With no free press, Tunisia cannot guarantee democracy. Despite government claims that the government guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, documents provided demonstrate otherwise. Until freedom of press is guaranteed and practiced, it will remain difficult to describe the Tunisian government as a government that upholds international human rights standards, in particular with regards to freedom of expression.

7. Book Censorship

While the dépôt légal system was abolished for periodicals in May 2005 (a measure which the IFEX-TMG welcomed in its September 2005 report), it is still used as a form of censorship of books in Tunisia. In a country that prides itself in producing 1,400 titles a year for a population of just over 10 million, there are actually only 200-300 new titles produced per year; the rest are mainly reprints and children’s books. Publishers which dare to publish books the authorities disapprove of not only see these books being blocked at the printer’s, but also have to face other forms of harassment, including forms of fiscal harassment.

We therefore continue to recommend the Tunisian government to release banned books, stop using the legal submission procedure as a censorship tool, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression. Amending Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the obligation for the printer to deposit copies of a printed book with the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies would be seen as a step in the right direction.

C. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Six months after the WSIS, freedom of expression and all related rights remain continually under intense siege.

Those targeted by state attacks are not only the uncompromising group of activists but also include officially registered groups and parties.

Contrary to what many Western and UN high-ranking officials expected,  the WSIS did not provide the impetus for the Tunisian government to make major inroads in its improvement of its records of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and all associated human rights.

The minor progress made appears mostly to have been cosmetic. Ironically, this was confirmed after Tunisia has been elected a member of the newly established UN Human Rights Council. Tunisia increasingly has continued to violate the rights related to freedom of expression.

It should be made clear that internationally recognised human rights standards are not principles open to bargaining.

As in previous reports, the IFEX-TMG must reassert that it would be extremely difficult to achieve freedom of expression in light of a judiciary system that lacks independence and where there is significant official disrespect of the rule of law. With virtually no independent media to hold government and public servants accountable and with no freedom of association, there can be no guarantees for Tunisian citizens to actually enjoy their inherent right to freedom of expression.

Based on incidents witnessed by members of the IFEX-TMG mission and according to statements made by the wide variety of civil society with which we met, we strongly recommend that the international community play a larger role in influencing Tunisia to establish a true democracy.

D. ANNEXES

Annex I

The three following documents were submitted to concerned authorities at different intervals since the arrest and imprisonment of Mohammed Abbou.

Document1: Request to transfer Mohammed Abbou from Le Kef to the prison in Tunis. According to Abbou’s lawyers and wife several requests have been submitted but none was taken into consideration.

Document 2: Complaint submitted to the Minister of Justice and Human Rights by Samia Abbou on 8 April 2006. In it Samia Abbou complains of the maltreatment of Abbou in prison and the fact that he is denied access to medical care and check-ups. In the complaint she also mentions the fact that Abbou was physically assaulted, not to mention the verbal harassment that both Samia Abbou and Mohammed Abbou face during visits.

Document 3: Complaint against the director of Le Kef for the maltreatment of Mohammed Abbou.

Annex II

National Legislations
In the field of criminal justice and prison reforms
1993

Article 48: Individuals licensed to visit a prisoner:
1. The spouse
2. Parents and grandparents
3. The prisoner’s children
4. Paternal uncles and aunts
5. Maternal uncles and aunts
6. Legal guardian
7. In-laws
8. An individual with relation to the prisoner of which the general administration of prisons and rehabilitation agrees on for cases when the prisoner does not have relatives living in the area.

Article 49: On an exceptional basis individuals other than relatives can be licensed to visit the prisoner or individuals that have moral influence on the individual. License for visitation can be given either by the General Administration for Prisons and Rehabilitation with regards to sentenced prisoners or by the Judicial Authority with regards to those provisionally detained.

Annex III

A Sample of how the General Media Administration intervenes in what to publish or not publish in Tunisian newspapers.

The Attached copy is a press release issued by the Green Party for Progress. On the release is the stamp of the General Media Administration and the signature of its director, Mohammed Zein Omara. On top of the signature «to be used» is written.

The last paragraph of the press release says:

«The Green Party for Progress hopes that the coming period will witness the upholding of supreme state interests, a bringing of side disputes to an end, and parties who have chosen to serve foreign bodies and agendas to stop political biddings and stand in support of state efforts to solve major issues and find solutions to all the challenges that face the country …»

Annex IV

Correspondence with Oussama Romdhani Secretary General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE)

1. Email sent by Romdhani on 26 April 2006:

Dear Mr Bench, Mr Diasio and Ms Sami:

Hello.

Thank you for a very useful meeting last Friday.
Following on our last meeting, I would like as agreed to add the following remarks.
1.     The makeup of the higher communication council was widened, since December 31, 2005, in order to include members of the opposition: Mr Hichem Hajji (from the People’s Unity Party) and Mr Laroussi Nalouti (from the Movement of Social Democrats). Other members of the council include since then Mr Abderrahmane Kraiem, (former member of the executive committee of the Human Rights League), Mr Faouzi Bouzaiene (president of the Tunisian Journalists’ Association) and Mr Mohamed Hamdane (Dean of the school of journalism). The council is chaired by Dr Youssef Alouane (an academic).
2.      Based on Tunisian law dated November 15, 1975, “professional journalist identification cards” are granted by a committee chaired by a senior official from the secretariat of state for information, and including three representatives of all national  media and three representatives of professional journalists from among representative media associations. The committee meets every year before January 20th.  An applicant must provide: a birth certificate, a nationality certificate, a copy of his or her judicial record, and a declaration stating that journalism is his or her principal occupation and that the majority of his or her income emanates from such an occupation. He or she should include a work certificate from his or her employer. He or she should also specify other activities if it is the case.  Academic requirements for those applying for the first time are: either a bachelor’s degree, or a high school diploma and a five-year experience, or a one-year university studies and a 4 year-professional experience, or two-year-university studies and a three-year-professional experience, or three year university studies and a two-year-professional experience. (The 1975 law and the bylaws of the special committee go into further detail. An accurate idea about eligibility to the journalism card conditions would obviously require studying such texts more closely).

3.     The labour code (1963) also defines the exercise of the journalistic profession.
4.     The launch of three private broadcasting stations (2 radio and one TV), in the last few years, demonstrates the effective commitment by the authorities to the process of introduction of the private sector into radio and television broadcasting.
5.     Regarding the general scope of your contacts in Tunisia: I appreciate your readiness for dialogue, but I do have to express my concern over your unavailability to meet with the Tunisian Association of Journalists or with the Association for the Protection of Arab and African Journalists (Ms Houda Ben Othmane). I understand you are free to choose with whom you want to meet, but I think you would agree with me that getting a balanced and accurate picture hinges upon hearing differing points of views.

More from me later. Please let me know if I can be of any further help.

Best regards,

Oussama Romdhani

2. Email sent by Romdhani on 27 April 2006:

Dear Mr Bench and friends:

I hope you have received my first message of yesterday.

I saw today the preliminary remarks of your mission. I regret that it contains more of the same and that even the sense of nuance is, in my opinion, lacking.

Not listening to a representative variety of NGO’s can obviously lead to such a lopsided view of Tunisian civil society and its relationship with the authorities.

You mention that you have told a «government official» that Mr Abbou should be freed and that «opologies» should be extended. I hope you have noted that it has been explained to you by this official and others that Mr Abbou was found guilty of serious physical assualt against a colleague and that he was tried and convicted according to due process of law, and that he has enjoyed as a detainee all the rights guaranteed by the law of the land.

Generally speaking, all individuals (should and do) receive the same treatment and enjoy the same guarantees. The rule of law obviously requires from all the respect of the law.

As another prelimanry reaction to your preliminary findings, I would like to reject once again any notion of «harrassment» by the authorities of civil society. Political parties, organizations and associations are able to organize their activities and express their views freely. Furthermore, associations enjoy the support of the state for the conduct of their activities.

Thank you for the opportunity of sharing these thoughts with you.

Best regards,

Oussama Romdhani

3. Reply sent to Romdhani on 28 April 2006

Dear Mr. Romdhani,

We very much appreciate this opportunity to dialogue with you.  Our mission was limited in time, and because of that, we felt that the best use of our time would be to interview those who would provide information and opinions different from those we generally can find in Tunisian newspapers.

During our meeting, you had committed to provide us an explanation for the specific reasons the websites Mr. Difasio and Ms. Sami brought to your attention.  These websites are www.hrinfo.org and www.amisnet.org.

While we were unable to fit into our schedule meetings with the AJT and our friend Houda, we interviewed from early morning until late into the night those persons we felt it most important to interview.  Some were much more important than others.  Though we did not meet with all the groups you suggested, we are certain of our findings, based on lengthy, searching interviews. We wish to make absolutely clear that we witnessed plain-clothed (political) police harrassment of activists, and there was one experience of our being followed in an automobile to one meeting which we find intimidating pressure by the Tunisian authorities.
The aim of our mission is not to condemn the Tunisian government. We are desirous of being unbiased and neutral.  However, the Tunisian government’s behavior (which we experienced personally and heard numerous examples of) makes it nearly impossible for us to believe government claims of progress in the fields of press freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of association, independence of the judiciary, and human rights situation in Tunisia.  No amount of «balanced» interviews can change our minds about what we saw, heard and experienced.

We did note in our news release–and will do so in more detail in our final report–that there is more balanced local news reporting in at least one very small circulation opposition newspaper.  This is progress, an improvement over past practices.  When Ms. Sami and I endeavored, however, to find copies of this newspaper at a random kiosk in Tunis, the attendant had never heard of the newspaper.

Further, you will be pleased to know that Francesco Diasio will be conducting a telephone interview with a member of the steering committee of AJT so that we can include his, and the positions of his organization, in our final report.

We still have not received concrete or complete answers on the requirements for establishing a private TV or radio station.  What is the transparent program the Tunisian government is implementing to assure that all broadcast applicants will be treated equally and fairly?  If they will be treated the same way that applicants for newspapers have been treated (as you know we have personally experienced), we express our concerns if there will ever be, under current circumstances, any independent private broadcast stations established in Tunisia.  We will have some comments regarding this issue below.

We have done some serious in-depth research and investigation and have the following additional comments regarding your messages to us:

It is our opinion that the establishment of the Higher Communication Council (HCC) in 1989 coincided with the beginning of the deterioration of the freedom of expression situation and the muzzling of the press in Tunisia.  This advisory body has fewer prerogatives than the Higher Information Council (HIC) which was, before President Ben Ali came to power, a kind of forum where officials, editors and journalists used to publicly discuss ways to improve the media situation. Long before it totally lost its independence in the early 1990s, the Tunisian Journalists Association used the defunct Higher Information Council to call upon the government to loosen its grip over the media and to campaign for independent journalism.

Independent-minded journalists, editors and journalism professors maintain that President Ben Ali’s HCC is a secretive body which, unlike his predecessor’s HIC, is not open to referrals from professionals and the general public.  They unanimously called it a step backward in comparison to the HIC that was active under former President Habib Bourguiba.

Regarding the widening of the makeup of HCC in 2005, to include members of the «opposition»:  the president of the state-run Tunisian Journalists Association; the director of the Press Institute (school of journalism), who is appointed by President Ben Ali upon recommendation from the minister of higher education we feel is purely cosmetic.  Mr. Mohamed Hamdane’s official position is director of the Press Institute.  He has never held the position of dean. Moreover, deans, such as of the Faculty of Arts or the Faculty of Law and economics, are elected by professors.  However, directors of higher education institutes, like Mr. Hemdane, are political appointees.  Our sources report that the appointment of directors of higher education institutes, as well as directors of secondary schools, is based on their allegiance to President Ben Ali and the ruling party.

The former member of the executive committee of LTDH, Abderrahmane Kraiem, has been included in the makeup of the HCC after he distanced himself from the harassed leadership of LTDH.  He is currently one of its critics.  His articles critical of LTDH are run by the state-controlled media, which we are advised have firm instructions to ignore LTDH letters, statements and activities.

The two members of the «opposition» belong to two minor political parties which have been supporting President Ben Ali since he became president in 1987. Like the word independent, the word opposition has a different meaning from the one agreed upon in dictionaries when used by Tunisian government officials.  You can understand our deep concern when we feel that the Tunisian government establishes groups to promote the government’s agenda and call them NGOs and blatantly blocks the formation and legalization of truly independent organizations as NGOs.  In truth, the few «legal» NGOs since 1989 have been harassed by political police as much as have the «illegal» Tunisian NGOs.

We find that the committee in charge of granting «professional journalist identification cards» is totally controlled by the government and constitutes one of the serious obstacles of true press freedom in the country.  Many journalists are denied facilities and the right to do their job if their articles are not to the taste of those in power.

The three representatives of the so-called «all national media» are appointed by the government.  They are often members of the state-run Tunisian Association of Newspapers Editors, which was expelled in 1997 from the World Association of Newspapers for its lack of action while press freedom was under constant attack.  The three representatives of professional journalists are members of the board of the state-run (our opinion) Association of Tunisian Journalists, which ironically awarded President Ben Ali in 2004 its Golden Quill for Press Freedom.

Journalists critical of the government or simply opposed to the idea of  receiving government instructions on what and how to write, like Sihem Ben Sedrine, Neziha Rejiba, Lotfi Hajji, Slah Jourchi, Mohamed Fourati, Lotfi Hidouri and others are arbitrarily denied the «professional journalist identification cards.»  Ironically, according to reliable sources in Tunis, many who have nothing to do with journalism, including plain clothes political policemen, are often granted the «professional journalist identification cards.»

IFEX TMG noted and welcomed the fact that a second private radio station has been licensed and a private television station has also been authorized, despite the fact that their owners, like the owner of the first radio station, appear (because of lack of clear and transparent licensing criteria) to have been handpicked among the loyal supporters of President Ben Ali.

We reiterate the need for fair and transparent licensing procedures and recommend the establishment of a truly independent regulatory body to oversee licensing of independent broadcast media.

We appreciate your readiness to dialogue and would like to thank you once again for your assistance and suggestions regarding groups or persons you deem likely to help IFEX TMG receive a “balanced and accurate picture” of the freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom of association and related human rights situation in Tunisia.

However, due to professional commitments of IFEX TMG members, our missions are often brief and we must necessarily prioritize whom we should meet during our missions. We tend to put on top of our list of planned meetings groups and individuals widely acknowledged by IFEX’s 72 members as independent or subject to gross attacks on their basic right to press freedom, free expression and association and movement.  During our last mission, we were blocked from meeting groups that fall under this category.  Obviously, this does not speak well of the freedoms we hear so much about from the Tunisian government, those guaranteed by your constitution.

While agreeing with you that “getting a balanced and accurate picture hinges upon hearing different points of view” is important, we find it more important to give priority, in addition to meeting government officials, to those groups and persons widely believed to be independent or under attack, rather than to groups whose agendas seem to be in harmony with the government’s restrictive policies and strategies.

Sincerely,

Mark Bench, Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee
On behalf of the Members of the IFEX TMG Mission of April 2006

4. Response of Romdhani on 28 April 2006:

Dear Mr Bench:

Thank you very much for your questions and comments.

I have a few observations to make obviously in response.

For practical reasons (having to do with travel commitments till Monday), please let me know what kind of deadline you are on before your final report.

Best regards and have a good Labor Day,

Oussama Romdhani

Deception and Lies:Freedom of Expression in Tunisia Remains under Siege

Report of the Tunisia Monitoring Group
Following the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)

Deception and Lies:
Freedom of Expression in Tunisia Remains under Siege Six Months After the WSIS

May 2006
Executive Summary
The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) is a global network of 72 national, regional, and international freedom of expression organisations.

This report is based on a fact-finding mission to Tunisia undertaken from 18 to 22 April 2006 by members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG) to follow up on progress made on the status of freedom of expression in Tunisia after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunisia in November 2005. The report is also based on information gathered by phone interviews and exchange of email made after the mission’s date.

The mission was composed of one representative each from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo), the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC).

Other members of the IFEX-TMG are: ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Index on Censorship, Journaliste en Danger (JED), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), World Association of Newspapers (WAN), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, International Publishers Association (IPA), Norwegian PEN, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

The principal findings of the mission were:

·    The continuation of the imprisonment of individuals related to expression of their opinions or media activities.
·    Blocking of websites, including news and information websites.
·    Restrictions on the freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be legally established, and to hold meetings.
·    Restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with political police surveillance, harassment, and intimidation.
·    Press self-censorship and lack of diversity of content in the media, especially in the state-owned papers, radio and TV stations.
·    Attempts to smear the reputations of activists, which are unlawful actions that are not being investigated.
·    Official harassment of attorneys and judges who press for independence of the judiciary.
·    Censorship of books through the legal submission procedure.

The IFEX-TMG is concerned that the situation of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and associated human rights issues remain far below international norms and conventions to which Tunisia is a signatory, despite Tunisian government assertions to the contrary.

In particular we urge:

1. The immediate release of prisoner of opinion Mohammed Abbou and many others who remain imprisoned for their religious and political beliefs.

2. The termination of all forms of harassment of the six cyber dissidents known as the Youth of Zarzis  and Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr who have been recently released, as well as other released prisoners of opinion, and political and human rights activists.

3. The Tunisian government to stop censoring books and blocking websites and Internet communication.

4. International organisations not to collude with the Tunisian government’s attempts to cover up violations taking place in Tunisia, and to hold the Tunisian state responsible and pressure it to abide by its international obligations.

A. INRODUCTION:
This is the third report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG), which follows the fifth fact-finding mission to Tunisia by members of the group from 18 to 22 April 2006, followed by phone interviews, five months after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunisia in November 2005.

In the report we have noted our concern with the deteriorating conditions of freedom of expression and related human rights issues in Tunisia, particularly regarding independent organisations , and the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer, Mohammed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles posted on the Internet.

Five months after the WSIS, violations of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and other basic human rights are still rampant. We thus urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the recommendations we are making in this report to demonstrate its real and immediate intent to remove any obstacles confronting Tunisian citizens from enjoying their inherent human rights, as stipulated in international agreements to which Tunisia is a signatory.

During the latest mission, members of the TMG met with public officials and members of the opposition, government supported organisations, independent civil society organisations, the bar association, lawyers, judges, human rights defenders, and journalists. A member of the IFEX-TMG mission held a phone interview with a representative of the Tunisian Association for Journalists (AJT). TMG members welcome the dialogue with government representatives, in which we can engage—and will continue to engage—in an open exchange of views.

The TMG mission met with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, and the Director General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE), Oussama Romdhani. Despite the fact that the IFEX-TMG welcomed the minor improvements that have been made since WSIS II, such as the release of scores of political prisoners in February, serious concerns remain with regards to other unfulfilled obligations incumbent upon the Tunisian government.

The IFEX-TMG voiced its deep concern about holding the second phase of WSIS in Tunis in November 2005. But many, including high-ranking UN officials, thought that the decision to hold WSIS II in Tunis would prompt the Tunisian government to improve its poor human rights record and to loosen its grip on the media and the Internet. Unfortunately such expectations were not met.

We call on the international community to recognise the serious nature of violations taking place in Tunisia and pressure the Tunisian government to cease ‘unlawful’ practices perpetrated against virtually all independent voices. The international community must hold Tunisian authorities accountable to their international obligations.

In the following sections we set out the principal developments observed by the IFEX-TMG mission on 18 to 22 April 2006.


B. FACTS ON THE GROUND

1. Prisoners of opinion
The IFEX-TMG welcomed the release of scores of prisoners of opinion during President Ben Ali’s latest pardon in February. In previous reports of the IFEX-TMG we recommended the release of prisoners jailed for expressing their opinions. We, in particular, recommended the release of Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly publication 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 the release of the six cyber dissidents known as the Youth of Zarzis who, following unfair trials, had been sentenced to heavy prison terms allegedly for using the Internet to prepare to commit terrorist acts.

We hereby acknowledge the release of Hamadi Jebali and the Youth of Zarzis, but we are seriously concerned with the continual harassment they face.

In a phone interview with Hamadi Jebali, he confirmed that he still faces serious harassments. Plain clothes political police are constantly monitoring him and his family and systematically harassing anyone he contacts.

«I often feel that I was safer in prison where I spent 15 years and a half than now with all this harassment, intimidation and attempts to deny me and my family the right to a quiet and decent life», he said. On 7 June, Jebali and his wife are due to appear before a magistrate allegedly for attempting to bribe a prison guard before the end of his lengthy and unfair imprisonment.

The IFEX-TMG mission is also concerned with the imprisonment of Mohammed Abbou and many other prisoners of opinion.

During a meeting with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, IFEX-TMG mission members were told that that there are no prisoners in jail whose only crimes are political, a statement which seemed to confirm allegations of fabrication of criminal charges against political dissidents and human rights activists.

Mohammed Abbou:

The case of Mohammed Abbou is one of a central issue relating to freedom of expression in Tunisia. The manner by which Abbou was arrested, tried and imprisoned only reveals the extent to which independent voices across different Tunisian sectors are under attack.

During Abbou’s trial the investigative judge ordered the removal of the leader of the defence team – who approached the court as the head of the Bar Association to organise the defence. When the lawyer refused to leave he was physically assaulted by police. Lawyers and Abbou’s wife, Samia Abbou, were attacked by plain-clothed policemen, who had been accused of «taking over the palace of justice» , while attempting to enter the court. Expressing their profound fear regarding the integrity of justice in Tunisia and the independence of judges, the Tunisian Magistrate Association published a statement condemning such behaviour, an action they continue to pay a high price for.

On 28 April 2005, Abbou was found guilty of publishing statements «likely to disturb public order» and for «defaming the judicial process.» He was also found guilty of a separate alleged offence of «violence» in 2002 against a female lawyer apparently close to the government. However, his arrest on 1 March 2005 came less than 24 hours after a blocked Tunisian news website  ran an opinion piece in which Abbou criticised President Ben Ali for inviting Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to attend the WSIS in Tunis.

He was sentenced to three and a half years of imprisonment. The Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, explained that the alleged violence against a female attorney was the main reason for his imprisonment. The appeals court confirmed his prison sentence on 10 June 2005 following another trial, described as unfair by local and international human rights groups and Tunis-based Western diplomats.

Despite the fact that the Minister of Justice and Human Rights has insisted that Tunisian laws allow criticism in the presence of evidence, when lawyers submitted official documents proving the practice of torture in Tunisian prisons, they were not registered or recognised by the Judge .

Mohammed Abbou’s physical assault of the female lawyer in 2002 is highly questionable. Members of the mission were told by witnesses that she was sent to provoke him during a meeting of young lawyers. She reportedly grabbed his shirt tearing the buttons off. Understandably, he pushed her away. In addition, members of the mission find highly disputable the fact that it took the authorities, according to Minister Tekkari, three years to build a case of physical assault.

Abbou is currently imprisoned in the city of Le Kef, 170 km southwest of the capital, Tunis, near the Tunisian-Algerian border.

Abbou’s family has submitted several requests for transferring him to another prison closer to his family. Such requests have fallen on deaf ears .

Every Thursday, Samia Abbou, is accompanied by at least one lawyer to visit her husband in Le Kef. The drive is three hours long and in winter the roads can be very risky. Abbou’s children do not visit their father except on school holidays as the trip to Le Kef consumes most of the day.

There have been several reports of Samia Abbou being harassed by traffic police on her travels to Le Kef. According to witnesses they are usually stopped more than once, and one time they were stopped 12 times. At one instance, it took the police over 40 minutes to check car registration papers. It is strongly believed that these harassments are attempts to delay Samia Abbou from her visitation hours.

During an interview with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, the IFEX-TMG mission requested to visit Mohammed Abbou in prison. However visitation was denied on the basis that Tunisian laws allow only close members of the family and lawyers to visit a prisoner. Members of the mission later found that the law allows, under special circumstances, visitation of friends  if the prison director deems it helpful to the morale of a prisoner whose family does not live close by. When mission members attempted to meet with the prison director, the members’ passports were taken but the mission was told 10 minutes later that the prison director was not on the premise and that no one else could authorise the visit with Mohammed Abbou.

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission accompanied Samia Abbou on her weekly trip to Le Kef and were surprised that she was allowed only a 15-minute visitation. Lawyers and activists joining the three-hour trip, in addition to Samia Abbou herself, confirmed that during previous visits she was allowed a mere 2 minutes per visit.  This is harassment when a 6-hour trip is required and 2 minutes are allotted to a visiting spouse.

Members of the mission strongly believe that the 15-minute visit was exceptional due to the presence of monitors. Upon the departure of the mission’s members from Tunisia, it was reported that Samia Abbou was only allowed 2 minutes in her following visit.

Mohammed Abbou stopped the hunger strike he began on 11 March 2006 to protest his prison conditions. However, he still complains of maltreatment. He does not have access to medical care. To protest his dire prison conditions, Abbou refuses to sleep on a mattress until prison conditions improve.

We find statements made by officials at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to be contradictory that Abbou is kept in the distant Le Kef prison because conditions there are much better than the prison in the capital, Tunis.

Youth of Zarzis:
The IFEX-TMG welcomed the release in February of Aberrazak Bourguiba, Hamza Mahroug, Abdel Ghafar Guiza, Ridha Belhaj Ibrahim, Omar Chelendi, and Aymen Mcharek, known as the Youth of Zarzis. They were all imprisoned in 2004 for the following charges:

·    Constitution of a gang for purposes of preparing and committing attempts on person and goods;
·    Preparation, transport and possession of explosives, devices and materials intended for making of such explosives;
·    Theft;
·    Attempted theft; and
·    Holding unauthorised meetings.

It is reported to members of the mission that the evidence alleged to have been seized has never been exhibited to the defendants, whose files their lawyers have never been able to consult.

The members of the IFEX-TMG mission were able to meet with only one of the Youth of Zarzis who travelled to Tunis for the meeting. Others were prevented from leaving Zarzis. It was noted that approximately 15 plain-clothed policemen were surrounding the headquarters of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) where the mission members were meeting with the dissidents .

Omar Chelendi, now 24 years old, was arrested when he was 20 years and 3 months old. He was released during the latest pardon made by the President on 27 February 2006. During the interview he spoke of dire prison conditions. There are serious claims that the Youth of Zarzis were exposed to harsh torture, including beating and electric shocks.

According to Chelendi, during interrogation he was beaten with a board that had nails protruding from it. One of the nails entered his left knee and broke off.  When he requested in prison that the nail be removed, he was given pain medication. Yet the mission members were advised by the Minister of Justice and Human Rights that medical care within Tunisian prisons is exemplary, and that if a released prisoner requires medical attention but can not afford it, the government will provide it free of charge.  No government official has offered to provide Chelendi with the necessary medical care to remove the nail.  He added that he and the others were hanged by their hands behind their back. Omar Rached, another member of the Youth of Zarzis, was reportedly tortured, and was prevented from leaving Zarzis to meet with the mission. One of the Youth of Zarzis had his penis slammed in a drawer, and Chelendi says his friend urinated blood for 3 days.

In a phone interview, Omar Rached, who was not allowed to leave Zarzis, he complained of the continual harassment that he has to face on a daily basis. He also said that he is not allowed to return to school. Every time he enters an Internet café he is harassed. Rached spoke also of torture in prison. He said that he still suffers from cigarette burns and electric shock marks on his body.

The Youth of Zarzis have been denied matriculation for higher education. Every day they are required to go to the police station at Zarzis to sign in and must salute the police officers. They are thus prevented from leaving Zarzis. When Chelendi went to Tunis seeking medical attention for his knee (his mother is Portuguese and so Chelendi thus is allowed to leave Zarzis) he was harassed and has received several threatening calls on his mobile telephone and in the hotel.

For six of Tunisia’s youth, life has become hell. Now they cannot continue their education or move around Tunisia freely. They live in a constant state of fear. A good example of such fear is the fact that Chelendi is afraid to enter any Internet café.  «I don’t mind his going if he wants to go to prison again,» said his father.

Chelendi’s family has applied for a Portuguese passport for him, and he plans to travel there next month. He still considers Tunisia his home and does not plan to abandon it.

Ali Ramzi Bettibi
Ali Ramzi Bettibi was arrested on 15 March 2005 while he was in an Internet café and sentenced to four-years imprisonment for re-posting on a website an article written by an Islamic Jihad movement promising bloodshed if Sharon attended the WSIS in Tunisia. Despite the fact that members of IFEX stand strongly against hate speech and abject calls to violence, they are strong advocates of freedom of expression.

While Oussama Romdhani, Director General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency claimed that Bettibi was in prison for posting a «threat saying that Tunisian streets would be awash in blood if Sharon comes to Tunisia», Bettibi’s brother insisted that these words were not his brother’s. According to Bettibi’s brother, the article was taken off the website of an Islamic Jihad movement and re-posted to shed light on the extent of opposition to Sharon’s visit to Tunisia.

On the other hand, there are serious concerns regarding the manner by which Bettibi was arrested and sentenced.  «He was kidnapped rather than arrested. There was no court order for his arrest. Police entered our home with no search warrant and confiscated many of his books and CDs,» said Bettibi’s brother.

There are claims that Bettibi was ruthlessly tortured during interrogations. «They put him on an electric chair and threatened to use it,» Bettibi’s brother said.

Bettibi has been on hunger strike since 23 March 2006. He went on strike for not being released after being told that he was among prisoners pardoned by President Ben Ali. He is also protesting maltreatment and verbal abuse in prison. Bettibi is currently in voluntary solitary confinement where he does not have a mattress to sleep on.

«His health is deteriorating drastically. During my last visit he vomited blood,» Bettibi’s brother told members of the IFEX-TMG mission.

Despite his deteriorating health, he is not provided with the necessary medical care.

2. Internet Blocking
Members of the IFEX-TMG mission discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government representatives, particularly with the Director General of the ATCE, Oussama Romdhani. The January 2005 TMG mission undertook technical tests  on selected Tunisian Internet Service Providers. They identified systematic Internet blocking which the IFEX-TMG believes to be operated using Smartfilter software.  Internet blocking was applied to wide categories of sites, but also including specific Tunisian government-defined URLs. At least two of the websites affiliated to the three members of the IFEX-TMG mission were blocked within Tunisia (www.hrinfo.net and www.amisnet.org).

Romdhani insisted that blocked websites are mostly anonymous websites, «used as venue to slander and smear the reputation of private individuals, and include threats from terrorist organisations».

Justification for blocking websites were that the «government wants to protect the people from incitement of evil.»

However, the IFEX-TMG mission is concerned with the blocking of several websites that do not carry any calls to violence. Hate speech is often in the eye of the beholder. Websites of local, even registered, so-called legal associations and political parties are blocked.

Neila Charchour Hachicha, founder of the Liberal Mediterranean party, which is still not registered, complains that the party’s website  was blocked after posting a statement issued by the 18th of October Movement.  Only after a statement was issued by the US Department of State was the censorship on her website lifted.  Recently the party’s website has been blocked again.

In addition to blocking websites, most of the visited activists complained of not having Internet access. Even though several organisations and activists have a DSL line, they cannot access any website from their computers.

Some members of the mission attempted to access the Internet from the CNLT’s headquarters but failed to open any website. Similar complaints were made by Rached Kachana, editor-in-Chief of Al-Maoukif newspaper, and Neila Charchour Hachicha.

3. Independent organisations

The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH)
In the previous IFEX-TMG report it was noted that the LTDH was prevented from holding its Sixth Congress, scheduled for 9-11 September 2005. During this mission, IFEX-TMG members were informed that the LTDH was banned from holding a solidarity meeting with the Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) on 2 December 2005. The office was surrounded by political police. «They did not allow us to enter here at LTDH headquarters,» said Mokhtar Trifi, LTDH president.

The origin of LTDH’s problem goes back to divisions among its members and heads of its branches. Currently, there are 32 court cases against the elected LTDH board. Even though the schisms taking place within LTDH might seem an internal affair, the manner by which plain-clothed political policemen have interfered to forcefully prevent any meetings from convening raises questions about the extent to which Tunisian authorities are involved in this matter.

LTDH’s board has tried endlessly to solve the problem peacefully. Directly after the WSIS was convened, President Ben Ali asked the head of the Supreme Authority for Human Rights and Liberty (a government appointed council) to submit recommendations in a report on what is needed to improve the political and human rights conditions in Tunisia. According to Mokhtar Trifi, LTDH was among the first organisations to submit their recommendations. To date, no report has been submitted to the Tunisian President.

A committee of former ministers and heads of LTDH was formed in December 2005 and met until March 2006. The committee looked into the matter in dispute and made proposals for both parties. The government-affiliated group refused these proposals.

Whenever the case of LTDH is raised before government officials, it is claimed that the matter is of an internal dispute. «If that is the case then why do plain-clothed political police interfere in our LTDH affairs?» questioned Trifi.

LTDH has decided to hold a meeting on 27-28 May 2006. As soon as the decision was made a court case was filed against them and a court order was issued to stop the meeting. The IFEX-TMG mission hopes that this meeting will be convened without any police intervention.

The mission met also with a member of the LTDH opposing group. According to Raouf Jemal, President of the LTDH Sejoumi (neighbourhood south of Tunis) Section, the reason behind the internal conflict is that the LTDH board took the decision to dissolve 18 sections in 2002, reducing LTDH’s sections from 41 to 23 sections. Seven of the 18 sections have taken the matter to court.

Jemal claims that the 7 sections agree that there are external pressures exerted on LTDH’s steering committee to make such a decision.

«We can’t specify who and what, and there is nothing concrete to blame, but it’s a common opinion among us,» he told the IFEX-TMG mission.

The IFEX-TMG urges all conflict parties to work hard to find solutions to their problem without allowing Tunisian authorities to interfere in the affairs of LTDH.

The Tunisian Association of Magistrates (AMT):
Without an independent judiciary, Tunisian citizens have no guarantees for their rights.

In the September 2005 report, the IFEX-TMG noted that numerous attempts have been made to destabilise the AMT and to encourage a minority group of judges close to the government to take control of the AMT. This happened after the AMT’s democratically-elected board spoke out against attacks on lawyers following the arrest of their colleague Mohammed Abbou in March 2005. Subsequently, the elected members of the AMT Board have been denied their right to freedom of assembly and expression.

The April 2006 IFEX-TMG mission met with:
·    Ahmed Rahmouni, AMT President;
·    Kelthoum Kennou, AMT Secretary General;
·    Wassila Kaabi, member of AMT Executive Bureau;
·    Leila Bahria, member of the AMT Administrative Committee; and
·    Raoudha Karafi, member of the AMT Executive Bureau.

According to Ahmed Rahmouni, the conflict between the AMT and the Tunisian government started when the current board was elected in 2004 through direct elections, banning the use of proxies to vote.

AMT’s statement condemning the unfortunate incidents that took place in the Palace of Justice during Mohammed Abbou’s trial was evidently the trigger that led to government attempts to destabilise the association.

All of the active judges in the association are harassed on nearly a daily basis. Many of the judges were transferred to court districts far from their place of residence, some as far as 300 km away from Tunis. Work plans are imposed upon them that occasionally require their constant supervision, «day and night.» They are hounded about the number of hours they work, when it is well known that the majority of judges’ work is done off the bench.

Members of the AMT board that we have met have complained of constant political police surveillance. According to one of the judges, she was called in by the prosecutor who told her exactly who went into her office and left, who she spoke to and who she did not. «This breaches the immunity and independence of judges,» she said.

Active judges have been repeatedly questioned on issues they find to be very trivial. They believe that the aim of the questioning is to create fear among other judges and to compile files against these judges to be used when necessary. While it is an unwritten rule among Tunisian judges to have the privilege of going to work whenever they see it necessary, the “activist” judges were questioned about their attendance while others were not. Four judges, two of whom are members of the AMT’s Administrative Committee, had their salaries reduced for absences.

«I am afraid that the constant intimidation will lead to disciplinary procedures that will threaten our continuation within the judicial system by either being fired or forced to retire early,» Rahmouni said.

18th of October Movement
Members of the IFEX-TMG mission met with 7 members of the board of the 18th of October Movement.

As the mission was on its way to meet members of the board of the 18th of October Movement, it received a phone call saying that the board members had been prevented from entering the headquarters of one of the opposition political parties. Upon the arrival of the IFEX-TMG mission, a large number of political policemen dispersed at the sight of the mission representatives. During the interview, the seventh member phoned to say that he was being forcefully banned from entering the building. Immediately, both Francesco Diasio of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters and Sally Sami of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information rushed downstairs to see what was happening. A plain-clothed policeman released his firm grip on the arm of the interviewee as soon as he saw the two IFEX-TMG representatives approach him.

The board of the Movement was established on 4 December 2005, two weeks after the WSIS was convened, with the main demands of freedom of expression, freedom of press, and freedom of association.

Since the group’s establishment, the government has reportedly intentionally influenced media not to cover their activities. The only exception is the small-circulation opposition weekly Al-Maoukif newspaper whose editor is a member of this group.

Members of the Movement believe that there are two main reasons why the government does not want any media coverage of them. First, the movement includes members of the Islamic movement in Tunisia. Second, the general sentiment is that this movement is the first real attempt of a group composed of different inclinations and trends.

Besides attempts to prevent any meeting, every time the Movement tries to hold a popular event, police surround the venue of the event and prevent popular participation.

4. Journalists and Dissidents:
Journalists still suffer from massive restrictions on their work. According to Lotfi Hajji, an independent journalist and chair of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT), after the WSIS, there has been a total crackdown on journalists. «It became impossible for us to meet and we were forced to work in clandestine conditions,» said Hajji.

Those journalists supporting the SJT, which the government still refuses to recognise, face daily harassment in an attempt to lower their morale. So far 160 journalists have signed the petition for the establishment of the Syndicate. The Tunisian government sees SJT as a political party rather than a legitimate journalists’ union, commenting that AJT (the government-approved journalists’ union) has approximately four times as many members.

Lotfi Hajji is under close surveillance. The members of the mission noted that a car was following Hajji to his meeting with the group.

On 11 May, Hajji was interrogated by the police about an alleged secret meeting he held on 27 April at his home in Bizerte. The police held him for four hours before releasing him. According to Hajji, this latest episode of police harassment has something to do with his activities as head of the SJT and its new report on attacks on the press, in addition to his active membership in the LTDH.

The case of Slim Boukhdeir, who ended on 9 May a five-week hunger strike which he started to protest being fired from Al-Shorouq Newspaper, remains unclear for the IFEX-TMG mission members. Despite the fact that Al-Shorouq is free to choose not to renew employment, many activists in Tunisia believe that the decision to fire Boukhdeir was influenced by the government. Boukhdeir is known for his critical articles published in Al-Arabiya.net.

Besides noting multiple cases of Tunisian government harassment of independent journalists, members of the IFEX-TMG mission are extremely concerned with the return of the use of tactics which fabricate moral scandals against political activists in an attempt to smear their reputation.

Mohammed Mokhtar Jelali
Mokhtar Al-Jelali is the husband of Naziha Rajiba (also known as Om Zied), a human rights activist and a journalist who herself suffers from persecution.

Jelali, a respected lawyer and former Member of Parliament, has fallen victim to attempts to smear his reputation starting in March 2006.

Jelali recently resigned from a minor opposition political party loyal to President Ben Ali. His resignation came after he attempted in vain to encourage his party, the Democratic Unionist Union, to act as a true opposition party.

Early last March both Rajiba and Jelali received anonymous phone calls threatening that Jelali’s reputation would be smeared if he did not pay 100,000 Tunisian Dinars. Callers claimed that they had pornographic video cassettes and photographs of Jelali.

«The government has the necessary equipment to fabricate pornographic material. They did that in the early 1990s,» Rajiba said.

According to activists interviewed, such methods were used in the early 1990s against former Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali and Islamist figures by a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Interior by the name of Mohamed Ali Ganzoui. It has been reported to the IFEX-TMG mission that this official has recently been installed as secretary of state for security.  Now these severe harassment measures appear again, applied against those who stand for freedoms enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution but are suppressed by political police. The tapes are being distributed again. Both Rajiba and Jelali have received cassettes and photographs mailed to them from France.

A complaint was filed with the Public Prosecutor as soon as the threats were made; however, to date, no investigation has begun. Officials have denied in the press that this issue might have any political basis.

During the IFEX-TMG’s meeting with ATCE’s Director General Romdhani, he insisted that the Tunisian government is against assailing the privacy of anyone. «It’s in our constitution,» he said.

Naziha Rajiba also confirmed that in 2004 a law was ratified by President Ben Ali prohibiting the exploitation of a private aspect of one’s life for any goal whatsoever.

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission find it surprising that at the same time as government officials and Tunisian legislations uphold the sanctity of one’s personal life, that no action has been taken by the prosecutor to investigate the attempts to smear Jelali’s reputation.

Neila Charchour Hachicha
Neila Charchour Hachicha’s father was involved in politics. When she told him that she will eventually follow his path, he advised her not to go to prison for anything but holding on to her principles and opinions. When she asked him whether imprisonment will definitely be her fate if she enters into politics, he told her yes.

«He was right,» she said.

Four years ago Hachicha applied to register a political party. She cannot officially establish her party because government authorities have refused to hand her the receipt that proves that she has applied for registration. In the meanwhile she set up a website.

When she posted a statement made by the 18th of October Movement, her website was blocked.
Her major crime was that she spoke of the situation in Tunisia when she took the platform during a conference held by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, in the United States. Three weeks after she returned to Tunisia, charges were made against her husband in a real estate case. Her husband is now facing a possibility of 10-months imprisonment.

Political police, according to eye witnesses, stole her car. When she filed a complaint, she was accused of defaming the police.

On her daughter’s engagement night, she received phone calls from guests telling her that they were told not to attend the party. According to her, plain-clothed political policemen surrounded her house. A few days after the engagement party, fabricated immoral pictures of her daughter were distributed among a wide sector of people.

5. Broadcast Pluralism
The IFEX-TMG has consistently requested during all of its missions to receive the written criteria for applying for a license to operate an independent, private radio or television station. The IFEX-TMG has been told that since private broadcasting is in the early stages, such criteria are in development.  The IFEX-TMG requested during prior missions and requests again to know the criteria for selecting the applicants for the two private radio stations and one television station that have been authorised.

It is incumbent upon the Tunisian government – that claims to be pluralistic – to assure that all radio and television station applications will be treated fairly and that the process will be widely distributed in advance, completely transparent, pluralistic and apolitical. Truly independent bodies should be selected to handle frequency allocation matters as well as the license renewal process.  Licenses should not be granted solely on the basis of the prospective owner’s close relationships within the government. Radio and television stations should be encouraged to cover local, regional and international news without fear of censorship or self-censorship.

6. Press Freedom
At the same time as members of the IFEX-TMG mission welcome the decision to completely abolish the depot legal,  there are still concerns of continuous restrictions imposed on the free press.

According to Rachid Khechana, editor in chief of the weekly opposition Al-Maoukif newspaper, opposition and independent newspapers are still confronting many challenges imposed by the government.

«Yes, we don’t have to submit our newspapers to be reviewed before they are distributed, but they are collected again from the market,» he said.

On a random basis both Mark Bench, of the World Press Freedom Committee, and Sally Sami, of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, asked several news-stands if they have Al-Maoukif newspaper. Sellers did not know the newspaper.

According to Khechana, only major book stores would have the newspaper but will only sell it to known customers as they fear getting into trouble.

In an interview with Romdhani of ATCE, he claimed that there have been advances and measures taken since the last IFEX-TMG mission in September 2005.

«There has been an increase in subsidy given to opposition newspapers, and opposition members have been introduced into membership of the Higher Communication Council (CSC), an advisory body on media and communication,» he said.

He also said that a fund to aid journalists and other media professionals, a project demanded by the government-controlled Tunisian Journalist Association (AJT), is being considered. The IFEX-TMG mission members say that the best action the Tunisian government can do is to cease forever the political police’s intimidation of journalists and allow them to write what they wish, as journalists do in any democratic country.

Members of the IFEX-TMG mission also noted more balanced local news coverage in very small circulation newspapers – incidentally, unavailable in and unknown to kiosks around Tunis. However, such progress was not noticed in the larger circulation government-controlled newspapers.

Independent journalists and activists, on the other hand, report that the government is still maintaining its grip on newspapers.

«Our press has just one rule and function: to glorify our president, to give him the illusion of a superman, of a genius politician, a man who is full of wisdom, and that everything in our country is going very well because he is there,» said Mohamed Talbi, President of the Observatory for Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC), an IFEX member based in Tunisia.  “A journalist is free to glorify our leader without restrictions. Freedom of the press is freedom of glorification in Tunisia,» he added.

It has been noted from documents presented to members of the mission that the General Media Administration authorises what press releases are to be printed in newspapers.

While Romdhani insisted that independent newspapers should seek private advertisements rather than to continue demanding public advertisement and subsidy, Khechana says that private advertisements are influenced by the government. Private companies are punished, he said, if they purchase ads in opposition newspapers, usually in the form of following up on unpaid taxes.

There are also serious concerns about government intervention in the publishing of statements made by activists and opposition political parties. These claims were made by the AMT, Khechana, and several other members of the Tunisian civil society.

Journalists’ Press Credentials
The issue of press cards for professional journalists remains a matter of concern for the IFEX-TMG mission members. The committee in charge of granting professional press cards is state-controlled and constitutes one of the serious obstacles of true press freedom in Tunisia.

According to Romdhani, based on a Tunisian law dated 15 November 1975, “professional journalist identification cards” are granted by a committee chaired by a senior official from the secretariat of state for information, and including three representatives of all national  media and three representatives of professional journalists from among representative media associations.

The three representatives of ‘all national media’ within this committee are appointed by the government. They are often members of the state-run Tunisian Association of Newspapers Editors, which was expelled in 1997 from the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) for its lack of action while press freedom was under constant attack. The three representatives of professional journalists are members of the board of the state-run Association of Tunisian Journalists (AJT), which ironically awarded President Ben Ali in 2004 its Gold Quill for Press Freedom. As a result, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) suspended AJT’s membership.

It is strongly believed that journalists critical of the government or who oppose receiving government instructions on what and how to write, like Sihem Ben Sedrine, Naziha Rajiba, Lotfi Hajji, Slah Jourchi, Mohammed Fourati, Lotfi Hidouri, and others are arbitrarily denied their press cards. Ironically, according to reliable sources in Tunisia, many who have nothing to do with journalism, including plain clothes political policemen, are often granted press cards.

It is ironic that the findings of the IFEX-TMG mission, with regards to press freedom, are in total contradiction with President Ben Ali’s statement on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

He said that freedom of expression and that of the press are «fundamental rights of the individual.» He added that «the diversification of the media landscape will be pursued and that the spaces of expressions will be enriched by the opening up of the media scene to the private sector.»

With no free press, Tunisia cannot guarantee democracy. Despite government claims that the government guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, documents provided demonstrate otherwise. Until freedom of press is guaranteed and practiced, it will remain difficult to describe the Tunisian government as a government that upholds international human rights standards, in particular with regards to freedom of expression.

7. Book Censorship
While the dépôt légal system was abolished for periodicals in May 2005 (a measure which the IFEX-TMG welcomed in its September 2005 report), it is still used as a form of censorship of books in Tunisia. In a country that prides itself in producing 1,400 titles a year for a population of just over 10 million, there are actually only 200-300 new titles produced per year; the rest are mainly reprints and children’s books. Publishers which dare to publish books the authorities disapprove of not only see these books being blocked at the printer’s, but also have to face other forms of harassment, including forms of fiscal harassment.

We therefore continue to recommend the Tunisian government to release banned books, stop using the legal submission procedure as a censorship tool, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression. Amending Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the obligation for the printer to deposit copies of a printed book with the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies would be seen as a step in the right direction.
C. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Six months after the WSIS, freedom of expression and all related rights remain continually under intense siege.

Those targeted by state attacks are not only the uncompromising group of activists but also include officially registered groups and parties.

Contrary to what many Western and UN high-ranking officials expected,  the WSIS did not provide the impetus for the Tunisian government to make major inroads in its improvement of its records of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and all associated human rights.

The minor progress made appears mostly to have been cosmetic. Ironically, this was confirmed after Tunisia has been elected a member of the newly established UN Human Rights Council. Tunisia increasingly has continued to violate the rights related to freedom of expression.

It should be made clear that internationally recognised human rights standards are not principles open to bargaining.

As in previous reports, the IFEX-TMG must reassert that it would be extremely difficult to achieve freedom of expression in light of a judiciary system that lacks independence and where there is significant official disrespect of the rule of law. With virtually no independent media to hold government and public servants accountable and with no freedom of association, there can be no guarantees for Tunisian citizens to actually enjoy their inherent right to freedom of expression.

Based on incidents witnessed by members of the IFEX-TMG mission and according to statements made by the wide variety of civil society with which we met, we strongly recommend that the international community play a larger role in influencing Tunisia to establish a true democracy.

D. ANNEXES

Annex I

The three following documents were submitted to concerned authorities at different intervals since the arrest and imprisonment of Mohammed Abbou.

Document1: Request to transfer Mohammed Abbou from Le Kef to the prison in Tunis. According to Abbou’s lawyers and wife several requests have been submitted but none was taken into consideration.

Document 2: Complaint submitted to the Minister of Justice and Human Rights by Samia Abbou on 8 April 2006. In it Samia Abbou complains of the maltreatment of Abbou in prison and the fact that he is denied access to medical care and check-ups. In the complaint she also mentions the fact that Abbou was physically assaulted, not to mention the verbal harassment that both Samia Abbou and Mohammed Abbou face during visits.

Document 3: Complaint against the director of Le Kef for the maltreatment of Mohammed Abbou.
Annex II

National Legislations
In the field of criminal justice and prison reforms
1993

Article 48: Individuals licensed to visit a prisoner:
1. The spouse
2. Parents and grandparents
3. The prisoner’s children
4. Paternal uncles and aunts
5. Maternal uncles and aunts
6. Legal guardian
7. In-laws
8. An individual with relation to the prisoner of which the general administration of prisons and rehabilitation agrees on for cases when the prisoner does not have relatives living in the area.

Article 49: On an exceptional basis individuals other than relatives can be licensed to visit the prisoner or individuals that have moral influence on the individual. License for visitation can be given either by the General Administration for Prisons and Rehabilitation with regards to sentenced prisoners or by the Judicial Authority with regards to those provisionally detained.
Annex III

A Sample of how the General Media Administration intervenes in what to publish or not publish in Tunisian newspapers.

The Attached copy is a press release issued by the Green Party for Progress. On the release is the stamp of the General Media Administration and the signature of its director, Mohammed Zein Omara. On top of the signature «to be used» is written.

The last paragraph of the press release says:

«The Green Party for Progress hopes that the coming period will witness the upholding of supreme state interests, a bringing of side disputes to an end, and parties who have chosen to serve foreign bodies and agendas to stop political biddings and stand in support of state efforts to solve major issues and find solutions to all the challenges that face the country …»
Annex IV

Correspondence with Oussama Romdhani Secretary General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE)

1. Email sent by Romdhani on 26 April 2006:

Dear Mr Bench, Mr Diasio and Ms Sami:

Hello.

Thank you for a very useful meeting last Friday.
Following on our last meeting, I would like as agreed to add the following remarks.
1.     The makeup of the higher communication council was widened, since December 31, 2005, in order to include members of the opposition: Mr Hichem Hajji (from the People’s Unity Party) and Mr Laroussi Nalouti (from the Movement of Social Democrats). Other members of the council include since then Mr Abderrahmane Kraiem, (former member of the executive committee of the Human Rights League), Mr Faouzi Bouzaiene (president of the Tunisian Journalists’ Association) and Mr Mohamed Hamdane (Dean of the school of journalism). The council is chaired by Dr Youssef Alouane (an academic).
2.      Based on Tunisian law dated November 15, 1975, “professional journalist identification cards” are granted by a committee chaired by a senior official from the secretariat of state for information, and including three representatives of all national  media and three representatives of professional journalists from among representative media associations. The committee meets every year before January 20th.  An applicant must provide: a birth certificate, a nationality certificate, a copy of his or her judicial record, and a declaration stating that journalism is his or her principal occupation and that the majority of his or her income emanates from such an occupation. He or she should include a work certificate from his or her employer. He or she should also specify other activities if it is the case.  Academic requirements for those applying for the first time are: either a bachelor’s degree, or a high school diploma and a five-year experience, or a one-year university studies and a 4 year-professional experience, or two-year-university studies and a three-year-professional experience, or three year university studies and a two-year-professional experience. (The 1975 law and the bylaws of the special committee go into further detail. An accurate idea about eligibility to the journalism card conditions would obviously require studying such texts more closely).

3.     The labour code (1963) also defines the exercise of the journalistic profession.
4.     The launch of three private broadcasting stations (2 radio and one TV), in the last few years, demonstrates the effective commitment by the authorities to the process of introduction of the private sector into radio and television broadcasting.
5.     Regarding the general scope of your contacts in Tunisia: I appreciate your readiness for dialogue, but I do have to express my concern over your unavailability to meet with the Tunisian Association of Journalists or with the Association for the Protection of Arab and African Journalists (Ms Houda Ben Othmane). I understand you are free to choose with whom you want to meet, but I think you would agree with me that getting a balanced and accurate picture hinges upon hearing differing points of views.

More from me later. Please let me know if I can be of any further help.

Best regards,

Oussama Romdhani
2. Email sent by Romdhani on 27 April 2006:

Dear Mr Bench and friends:

I hope you have received my first message of yesterday.

I saw today the preliminary remarks of your mission. I regret that it contains more of the same and that even the sense of nuance is, in my opinion, lacking.

Not listening to a representative variety of NGO’s can obviously lead to such a lopsided view of Tunisian civil society and its relationship with the authorities.

You mention that you have told a «government official» that Mr Abbou should be freed and that «opologies» should be extended. I hope you have noted that it has been explained to you by this official and others that Mr Abbou was found guilty of serious physical assualt against a colleague and that he was tried and convicted according to due process of law, and that he has enjoyed as a detainee all the rights guaranteed by the law of the land.

Generally speaking, all individuals (should and do) receive the same treatment and enjoy the same guarantees. The rule of law obviously requires from all the respect of the law.

As another prelimanry reaction to your preliminary findings, I would like to reject once again any notion of «harrassment» by the authorities of civil society. Political parties, organizations and associations are able to organize their activities and express their views freely. Furthermore, associations enjoy the support of the state for the conduct of their activities.

Thank you for the opportunity of sharing these thoughts with you.

Best regards,

Oussama Romdhani

3. Reply sent to Romdhani on 28 April 2006

Dear Mr. Romdhani,

We very much appreciate this opportunity to dialogue with you.  Our mission was limited in time, and because of that, we felt that the best use of our time would be to interview those who would provide information and opinions different from those we generally can find in Tunisian newspapers.

During our meeting, you had committed to provide us an explanation for the specific reasons the websites Mr. Difasio and Ms. Sami brought to your attention.  These websites are The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and Amisnet.

While we were unable to fit into our schedule meetings with the AJT and our friend Houda, we interviewed from early morning until late into the night those persons we felt it most important to interview.  Some were much more important than others.  Though we did not meet with all the groups you suggested, we are certain of our findings, based on lengthy, searching interviews. We wish to make absolutely clear that we witnessed plain-clothed (political) police harrassment of activists, and there was one experience of our being followed in an automobile to one meeting which we find intimidating pressure by the Tunisian authorities.
The aim of our mission is not to condemn the Tunisian government. We are desirous of being unbiased and neutral.  However, the Tunisian government’s behavior (which we experienced personally and heard numerous examples of) makes it nearly impossible for us to believe government claims of progress in the fields of press freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of association, independence of the judiciary, and human rights situation in Tunisia.  No amount of «balanced» interviews can change our minds about what we saw, heard and experienced.

We did note in our news release–and will do so in more detail in our final report–that there is more balanced local news reporting in at least one very small circulation opposition newspaper.  This is progress, an improvement over past practices.  When Ms. Sami and I endeavored, however, to find copies of this newspaper at a random kiosk in Tunis, the attendant had never heard of the newspaper.

Further, you will be pleased to know that Francesco Diasio will be conducting a telephone interview with a member of the steering committee of AJT so that we can include his, and the positions of his organization, in our final report.

We still have not received concrete or complete answers on the requirements for establishing a private TV or radio station.  What is the transparent program the Tunisian government is implementing to assure that all broadcast applicants will be treated equally and fairly?  If they will be treated the same way that applicants for newspapers have been treated (as you know we have personally experienced), we express our concerns if there will ever be, under current circumstances, any independent private broadcast stations established in Tunisia.  We will have some comments regarding this issue below.

We have done some serious in-depth research and investigation and have the following additional comments regarding your messages to us:

It is our opinion that the establishment of the Higher Communication Council (HCC) in 1989 coincided with the beginning of the deterioration of the freedom of expression situation and the muzzling of the press in Tunisia.  This advisory body has fewer prerogatives than the Higher Information Council (HIC) which was, before President Ben Ali came to power, a kind of forum where officials, editors and journalists used to publicly discuss ways to improve the media situation. Long before it totally lost its independence in the early 1990s, the Tunisian Journalists Association used the defunct Higher Information Council to call upon the government to loosen its grip over the media and to campaign for independent journalism.

Independent-minded journalists, editors and journalism professors maintain that President Ben Ali’s HCC is a secretive body which, unlike his predecessor’s HIC, is not open to referrals from professionals and the general public.  They unanimously called it a step backward in comparison to the HIC that was active under former President Habib Bourguiba.

Regarding the widening of the makeup of HCC in 2005, to include members of the «opposition»:  the president of the state-run Tunisian Journalists Association; the director of the Press Institute (school of journalism), who is appointed by President Ben Ali upon recommendation from the minister of higher education we feel is purely cosmetic.  Mr. Mohamed Hamdane’s official position is director of the Press Institute.  He has never held the position of dean. Moreover, deans, such as of the Faculty of Arts or the Faculty of Law and economics, are elected by professors.  However, directors of higher education institutes, like Mr. Hemdane, are political appointees.  Our sources report that the appointment of directors of higher education institutes, as well as directors of secondary schools, is based on their allegiance to President Ben Ali and the ruling party.

The former member of the executive committee of LTDH, Abderrahmane Kraiem, has been included in the makeup of the HCC after he distanced himself from the harassed leadership of LTDH.  He is currently one of its critics.  His articles critical of LTDH are run by the state-controlled media, which we are advised have firm instructions to ignore LTDH letters, statements and activities.

The two members of the «opposition» belong to two minor political parties which have been supporting President Ben Ali since he became president in 1987. Like the word independent, the word opposition has a different meaning from the one agreed upon in dictionaries when used by Tunisian government officials.  You can understand our deep concern when we feel that the Tunisian government establishes groups to promote the government’s agenda and call them NGOs and blatantly blocks the formation and legalization of truly independent organizations as NGOs.  In truth, the few «legal» NGOs since 1989 have been harassed by political police as much as have the «illegal» Tunisian NGOs.

We find that the committee in charge of granting «professional journalist identification cards» is totally controlled by the government and constitutes one of the serious obstacles of true press freedom in the country.  Many journalists are denied facilities and the right to do their job if their articles are not to the taste of those in power.

The three representatives of the so-called «all national media» are appointed by the government.  They are often members of the state-run Tunisian Association of Newspapers Editors, which was expelled in 1997 from the World Association of Newspapers for its lack of action while press freedom was under constant attack.  The three representatives of professional journalists are members of the board of the state-run (our opinion) Association of Tunisian Journalists, which ironically awarded President Ben Ali in 2004 its Golden Quill for Press Freedom.

Journalists critical of the government or simply opposed to the idea of  receiving government instructions on what and how to write, like Sihem Ben Sedrine, Neziha Rejiba, Lotfi Hajji, Slah Jourchi, Mohamed Fourati, Lotfi Hidouri and others are arbitrarily denied the «professional journalist identification cards.»  Ironically, according to reliable sources in Tunis, many who have nothing to do with journalism, including plain clothes political policemen, are often granted the «professional journalist identification cards.»

IFEX TMG noted and welcomed the fact that a second private radio station has been licensed and a private television station has also been authorized, despite the fact that their owners, like the owner of the first radio station, appear (because of lack of clear and transparent licensing criteria) to have been handpicked among the loyal supporters of President Ben Ali.

We reiterate the need for fair and transparent licensing procedures and recommend the establishment of a truly independent regulatory body to oversee licensing of independent broadcast media.

We appreciate your readiness to dialogue and would like to thank you once again for your assistance and suggestions regarding groups or persons you deem likely to help IFEX TMG receive a “balanced and accurate picture” of the freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom of association and related human rights situation in Tunisia.

However, due to professional commitments of IFEX TMG members, our missions are often brief and we must necessarily prioritize whom we should meet during our missions. We tend to put on top of our list of planned meetings groups and individuals widely acknowledged by IFEX’s 72 members as independent or subject to gross attacks on their basic right to press freedom, free expression and association and movement.  During our last mission, we were blocked from meeting groups that fall under this category.  Obviously, this does not speak well of the freedoms we hear so much about from the Tunisian government, those guaranteed by your constitution.

While agreeing with you that “getting a balanced and accurate picture hinges upon hearing different points of view” is important, we find it more important to give priority, in addition to meeting government officials, to those groups and persons widely believed to be independent or under attack, rather than to groups whose agendas seem to be in harmony with the government’s restrictive policies and strategies.

Sincerely,

Mark Bench, Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee
On behalf of the Members of the IFEX TMG Mission of April 2006
4. Response of Romdhani on 28 April 2006:

Dear Mr Bench:

Thank you very much for your questions and comments.

I have a few observations to make obviously in response.

For practical reasons (having to do with travel commitments till Monday), please let me know what kind of deadline you are on before your final report.

Best regards and have a good Labor Day,

Oussama Romdhani