31 FOE organizations ask UNSG Kofi Annan to change venue of next WSIS summit

PRESS RELEASE

31 FOE organizations ask UNSG Kofi Annan to change venue of next WSIS summit

At the recent IFEX AGM in Baku, Azerbaijan, 31 member organizations signed a letter urging UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to move the next session of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), due to take place in Tunisia in November 2005, unless Tunisia makes substantial progress on respect for freedom of expression.  Norwegian PEN was one of the 31 organizations.

Tunisia is one of the major tourist attractions in North Africa with historic traditions dating back more than 2000 years.  Today, the country has a bad reputation regarding freedom of expression.  As an example, in April 2004 a group of young men were convicted of «creating a gang to terrorise people», «violence against individuals with the intent to terrorise, «holding unauthorised meetings», «theft and attemted theft», «preparing explosive materials» and «unauthorised possession of substances intended for making explosive devices.»  What these eight young men had done, was to download home-pages through the Internet.  At the time of the arrests, the police only confiscated a tube of glue and a few CD-ROMs, which were the only evidence to support the allegation of «making explosives».  Verdict: Up to 26 years in prison.  Five of the defendants filed complaints alleging torture, but the court refused to allow medical examination.

Norwegian PEN president Kjell Olaf Jensen and secretary general Carl Morten Iversen met today with the Tunisian ambassador to Norway, the former journalist Mokhtar Chaouachi, voicing their concern about the trials.  The ambassador informed us that the sentences had been reduced to 13 years upon appeal, a fact that was not very reassuring for Norwegian PEN.

Norwegian PEN also drew the ambassadors attention to a demonstration outside the Tunisian state broadcasting company in Tunis on 27. March 2004, which was soon stopped by the police.  The theme of the demonstration was the right to free expression, and ambassador Chaouachi informed us that the reason it was stopped was the fear of terrorist attacs during the Arab Summit taking place in Tunis at the same time.  When confronted by the fact that a similar demonstration was dispersed by Tunisian security forces on 19. February, with no Arab Summit taking place in Tunis, the ambassador had no reply.

Ambassador Chaouachi also stressed the fact that a recent preparatory committee meeting of WSIS 2 in Hammamet, Tunisia (24. – 26. June 2004) had been carried out without any  problems whatsoever.  Norwegian PEN then informed the ambassador that, according to an internal report from one of the participants at the conference, getting the floor in order to speak was  close to impossible and the members of the civil society groups present at the meeting, discouraged by the hopeless conditions, had contemplated leaving the meeting altogether.  The fact that the upcoming WSIS prepcom meetings are scheduled for Geneva, and not for Tunisia, also indicates that the situation in Hammamet was not the way Tunisian authorities chose to describe it.

On 17.February this year, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali met with U.S. president George W. Bush in Washington D.C.  President Bush used the occasion to remind his colleague about «the necessity for a free and vibrant press and an open political process».  According to ambassador Chaouachi, this episode took place because president Bush, like western media in general, receive biased information about Tunisia.

In the fall of 2003, Tunisian president Ben Ali was awarded the Golden Pen of Press Freedom from the Tunisian Journalists´ Association.  As a reaction, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) announced the Tunisian group´s suspension and provisional expulsion from membership in the IFJ.

13. July 2004