MINUTES OF THE IPA – PEN TUNISIA ROUND TABLE. UNCHR. ITEM 11. 31 MARCH 2005
Alexis Krikorian (IPA) welcomed all participants and gave background information on hosting organisations.
Steve Buckley (AMARC) spoke about the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and freedom of expression. He also introduced the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), as well as the findings and recommendations included in the IFEX Tunisia report, which was launched internationally during WSIS Prepcom 2 in Geneva (17-25 February 2005).
The principle findings included in the report are:
* 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 the IFEX TMG urges 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.
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 with respect to writers and publishers.
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.
This is a set of recommendations which the Tunisia Monitoring Group of international freedom of expression organizations will use to measure progress in Tunisia in the run up to and following the Tunis Summit of the WSIS. If the Tunisian government is to assure the support of the international community for a successful Summit in November it will need to make substantial progress towards achieving the reforms which are needed for the country to be a model and not a mockery of international human rights norms and standards.
Pierre Lyon-Caen, former Magistrate of the French Cour de Cassation, tackled the issue of the independence of the Judiciary in Tunisia. He said that Tunisia could very well be considered a model country as far as education, secularity, birth control and women’s rights were concerned. Because President Ben Ali has maintained status quo in these fields, the country’s positive image is taken for granted. But there is a great lack of democracy and fundamental freedoms in Tunisia, despite the fact that the law ensures respect for these freedoms. He said that freedom of association was not respected in Tunisia. Tunisian citizens should be free to organise without prior registration with the authorities, but any criticism of the Tunisian authorities is considered a criminal offence. Freedom of expression is not respected either.
Judge Lyon-Caen took part in several trial observation missions to Tunisia with Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Paris-based Fédération Internationale des Ligues des droits de l’Homme (FIDH). For example, he followed the Hammami trial. In his case, as in many others, force prevailed over law. The Tunisian government treats the legal system with contempt. Judges are mere puppets in the hands of the authorities. According to him, Tunisian judges do not respect basic court rules and do not know how a hearing should be organised. Court proceedings are therefore often chaotic. Besides, they are under tight police influence. Despite a lower prison term in appeal than in first instance (3 years instead of 9), the sentence against Hammami remained heavy given the offences concerned. Overall, his trial was far from fair. It should be further noted that Mr. Hammami was released before the end of his term. In a way, this is an example of contempt of the Executive branch vis-à-vis the Judiciary.
Tunisian press do not report on these court hearings because, like the judges themselves, it is not free. He noted that some judges try to stand up for their rights and those of the Judiciary like judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui who sent an open letter to President Ben Ali in 2001. As a result, he was sacked and, overall, has had to pay a very heavy price for this courageous act. Lawyers are ill-treated as well. For instance, the Police recently and voluntarily used violence against lawyer Nadia Nasraoui. She got a broken nose.
In conclusion, the Tunisian Judiciary has a long way to go in order to be able to defend the people’s basic rights and can only evolve in that direction through a substantial, democratic development.
Neziba Rejiba, Tunisian writer and OLPEC Vice-President (Observatoire de la liberté de la presse, de l’édition et de la créativité), spoke about Freedom of Expression in Tunisia and how to be a woman writer. She also compared the freedom of expression situation in Tunisia under Bourguiba and under Ben Ali. She said that under Bourguiba, there was some space for freedom. For his part, President Ben Ali pushes newspapers to kill themselves.
Larry Kilman, Director of Communication, World Association of Newspapers (WAN), discussed Press Freedom in Tunisia as seen from abroad. He said that WAN Director, Timothy Balding, had recently met with the Tunisian Ambassador to France, Moncef Rouissi, to discuss WAN’s concerns about the situation of press freedom in Tunisia. The latter denied that the country had any press freedom problems. The Tunisian Ambassador admitted he had not read the LTDH report and he declined WAN’s offer to provide him with a copy. Larry Kilman further stated that the Tunisian authorities had launched a massive propaganda campaign about the state of press freedom in the country prior to the WSIS in November 2005.
He also said that the Tunisian Journalists Association (AJT/TJA), which is completely loyal to the government, awarded a press freedom prize to President Ben Ali in late 2003, which led to its suspension from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in 2004, which called it a “ridiculous move”.
Furthermore, WAN expelled the Tunisian Association of Newspapers from its membership in 1997 because it was clear that it had no intention of defending and promoting freedom of the press in Tunisia. Over the years, they had become accomplices to the repression. The association now claims that it resigned its membership, but this was not the case. They fought to the bitter end and tried to do everything to save their membership.
Finally, he said that WAN was disappointed that second phase of WSIS will be held in Tunis in November. In asking the United Nations to change the venue, WAN argued that such a summit had no place in a country where the broadcast media remain dominated by the state, websites and newspapers critical of the government are blocked or are prevented from publishing, censorship of the Internet is routine practice and where citizens are imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression.
Despite international condemnation, the Summit will go ahead in Tunisia. By failing to change the venue, the UN missed an opportunity to show repressive regimes that it is in their own best interest to respect freedom of expression. Instead, President Ben Ali is now saying that the decision to hold the WSIS in Tunisia represents an international endorsement of his policies.
It is important to continue to point out the folly of such statements, and press the Tunisian government to show respect for freedom of expression and to make other human rights improvements.
Lotfi Hajji, President of the Independent Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, discussed press freedom in Tunisia from a Tunisian perspective. He outlined the history of journalism in Tunisia from the early 1990s. The Independent Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists was created because Tunisian journalists felt that they did not have an independent organisation, which could defend their interests. Since the early 1980s the local branch of IFJ has not been able to do its work properly. Each time it would try to play an independent role, the authorities pressured it. He said that journalists are increasingly marginalised within Tunisian press organisations. Not a single Tunisian press organisation is endowed with a Board of Directors making policy decisions. This leads to great confusion. There is only ONE editor-in-chief in Tunisia: President Ben Ali.
The Tunisian authorities launched a smear-campaign against the Al-Jazeera TV network because it had broadcast a critical program about Tunisia.
He also said that because he was one of the founders of the Syndicate, he was denied the possibility to work as a journalist in his country. He has been waiting for accreditation as a foreign correspondent for 8 months, but still has not received it (and probably never will). It should be noted that Tunisia is among the few Arab States, which does not allow a local Al-Jazeera Bureau to operate.
In conclusion, he stated that the Independent Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists demanded that Tunisian Law and the Code of conduct of Tunisian journalists be respected. The Syndicate also demands that all Tunisian journalists be able to carry out their work independently.
Moncef Marzouki, a Tunisian Militant living in exile, was due do speak about civil and political rights in Tunisia, but he cancelled prior to the roundtable. Mr. Krikorian read his written statement.
Sihem Bensedrine, spokesperson of the Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie (CNLT), tackled civil and political rights in Tunisia from a WSIS-perspective and referred to civil and political rights in Tunisia as an “empty space”. She said that, since the late 1980s, when Ben Ali took power, no independent organisation has been officially approved by the authorities. Since the early 1990s, all newspapers that used to be free and independent were “killed” by the authorities. In Tunisia, independence is considered a major crime by the authorities. There is no freedom of assembly (no public demonstrations allowed). The entire Tunisian society has been slotted into a small framework like that of the former Soviet Union. The authorities know everything about each and every individual. More than 10’000 Tunisians have been imprisoned for “political crimes” in recent years. 500 are still in jail.
On the question of copyright in Tunisia, she said that law protects copyright. However, the law is not being implemented. There is no freedom to write, nor freedom to publish in Tunisia. The authorities, as a requisite, must give “prior permission”. In other words, copyright is protected legally speaking, but the lack of freedom on the publishers’ and writers’ part deprives them from effective copyright protection.
On a question about whether or not international NGOs should attend the WSIS, she answered that it was a difficult question. However, she added that international presence during the Summit (November 2005, Tunis) was welcomed because she viewed it as a possibility to actually discuss and debate human rights and freedom of expression in Tunisia.