11.21.2005

US disappointed of restrictions on freedoms in Tunisia

There is good news concerning some consequences of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) hosted by Tunisia.

The world is more introduced to the way in which the Arab societies are governed. The Arabic edition of the authoritarianism is becoming publicized after some decades of western apathy. The world has directly witnessed the Tunisian government conduct as regards the civil liberties and rights. This serves as a typical example of what is going in the Arab states, however, at different ranges.

The U.S. issued a statement Urges Progress in Tunisian Reform and Human Rights, expressing the U.S. "disappointment" and concern about restrictions on freedoms of speech and political activity in Tunisia.

It is indicative that the cooperation, friendship and the good relations with the Tunisian government did not preclude such candid statement. This serves as an indicator that the U.S. is serious about this course, beyond rhetoric. Furthermore, it gives the U.S. credibility a push in the Middle East and weakens the skeptics, especially, whom affiliated with the secret police (Mukhabarat). And sends the right signals to the Middle East reformists.

Related post: Middle East's Political Stirring.

Here is the information:

U.S. Delegation Urges Progress in Tunisian Reform, Human Rights

(International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) ended November 18 with the U.S. delegation to the U.N.-sponsored meeting expressing both thanks and disappointment at the role of the hosting Tunisian government.

The summit was a chance for the community of nations to discuss both the expansion of information and communications technology and the free flow of information that is critical to the innovation and expansion of the Internet.

“We are therefore obliged to express our disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia,” said a press note issued by the delegation.

“We hope that the successful outcome of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia will provide additional incentive to the government in Tunisia to match its considerable economic and social accomplishments with comparable progress in political reform and respect for the human rights of its people,” the statement said.

Days before the summit began, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli also expressed concern about restrictions on freedoms of speech and political activity in Tunisia, at the same time noting progress in Tunisia’s economic and social reform.

For additional information on the November 16-18 WSIS conference, see World Summit on the Information Society.

The text of the statement follows:

(begin text)

U.S. DELEGATION TO WSIS [World Summit on the Information Society]
PRESS NOTE
(Tunis, Tunisia)
For Immediate Release
November 18, 2005

As the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society draws to a close, the U.S. delegation wishes to express its thanks to the Tunisian organizers and the Tunisian people for having succeeded in the considerable logistical challenges of hosting the event. The World Summit on the Information Society provided the world with an opportunity to discuss two vitally important issues – how to bring the benefits of information technology to the developing world and how to ensure a free flow of information that is critical to the success of the Internet.

Internet stakeholders have underlined in both the official meetings and in parallel events during WSIS the critical necessity of an open dialogue between governments, private sector, and civil society representatives. In hosting this Summit, the government of Tunisia had an opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate clearly its commitment to freedom of the press and its commitment to freedom of expression. Indeed, in a statement by the Western European and others Group (WEOG), during the Geneva Prepcom in September 2005, Tunisia, as host of the Summit, was called upon to demonstrate that it strongly upholds and promotes the right to freedom of opinion and expression necessary to promote the building of the global information society and ensure a successful second phase of the World Summit. We are therefore obliged to express our disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia. We hope that the successful outcome of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia will provide additional incentive to the government in Tunisia to match its considerable economic and social accomplishments with comparable progress in political reform and respect for the human rights of its people.

(end text)
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The related Human Rights Watch Press Releases:


The World Summit on the Information Society

Dispatch from Tunis: The Civil Society Summit That Wasn’t
(Tunis, November 14, 2005) – Today as a global summit on the Internet got underway, the Tunisian government did all it could to smother a local summit on the same topic. One might think that a world conference on improving global Internet access represents a prime chance for the government to reverse its reputation for intolerance of dissent, but the day’s events proved it to be an opportunity missed.

The streets and landmark buildings of downtown Tunis are festooned with red national flags and portraits of President Ben Ali, while plainclothes police patrol in large numbers outside almost every major hotel and at known gathering points of Tunisia’s small human rights community. Meanwhile, some 10 kilometers away in the northern suburb of Kram, dignitaries, diplomats and members of accredited civil society and press organizations gathered to attend preliminary parallel sessions of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), whose official sessions open on November 16. But much of the Tunisian human rights community was barred from the global conference and thwarted in attempts to meet independently.

The government of Tunisia tolerates little dissent. Human rights organizations operate under heavy restrictions, and many are denied legal recognition by the authorities. Peaceful meetings of human rights activists are often blocked by plainclothes police who forcibly disperse would-be participants.

Cancelled venue
Many Tunisian human rights organizations that might have participated in WSIS could not for lack of formal legal status in Tunisia. For this reason, they together with international human rights organizations in town for the WSIS prepared to hold a parallel event in Tunis called the Citizen’s Summit to debate the same issues that would be discussed at the WSIS conference events. To that end, they rented a venue at the Hotel Oriental Palace, a major hotel in Tunis, and created a website with a schedule for the alternate summit.

On November 10, the hotel notified organizers of the Citizen’s Summit that the hall was no longer available, citing the sudden need for repair work at that time. The abrupt unavailability of a venue for gatherings by unauthorized groups has been part of a pattern of harassment, as has forcible disruption of “unauthorized” assemblies by plainclothes police.

Police intimidation
This morning at roughly 9 a.m., representatives of the organizations planning the Citizen’s Summit planned to meet at the Goethe Institute, a German cultural institute, in downtown Tunis, but were prevented from entering by several dozen plainclothes police. The police, who refused to identify themselves or give any explanation of their actions, manhandled Tunisian and foreign activists, knocking down several individuals as they pushed them along the streets. The police also confiscated the camera from a Belgian television cameraman who came to tape the scene, returning it without its cartridge, and attempted to confiscate the camera from a Swiss photojournalist, telling him it was forbidden to take pictures.

Among those who were dispersed by the authorities were Souhayr Belhassen, vice-president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Sihem Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri, and Om Zied of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia (an unauthorized organization), Mahmoud Dhaouadi, a member of the Union of Tunisian Journalists, (an unauthorized organization), and representatives of Human Rights Watch (New York); the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH, Paris), Front Line (Dublin), the World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters (Montreal), the Association for Progressive Communication (Johannesburg), and the Human Rights Caucus of WSIS. Eventually, some of these delegates were able to meet when a high-level German diplomat attending WSIS and a Swiss diplomat personally hosted them at a nearby café. However, they had to leave when the café owner informed them that police surrounding the establishment said he would have to close it if they remained on the premises.

A second event of the Citizen’s Summit scheduled for the afternoon was also thwarted by Tunisian authorities. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) had organized a meeting under the auspices of the Citizens Summit, on the theme of woman in the information society. They had rented the Espace Téatro in the Hotel Mechtel. Three days ago, that hotel official contacted the ATFD and informed it that the hall was no longer available. The ATFD decided to hold the event instead at its offices in downtown Tunis, at 5:00 pm. At that time, persons approaching the office to attend were confronted by plainclothes police, who informed them that the meeting was forbidden, and that they had orders to deny access to the site. The meeting could not take place.

At approximately 10 p.m., Omar Mestiri, of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia, attempted to meet a Lebanese human rights activist visiting Tunis for WSIS at a local hotel. Police at the entrance prevented Mestiri from entering the building. After a brief confrontation, Mestiri was detained for approximately 90 minutes at a police station before being allowed to leave.

A select few
The limited participation of Tunisian civil society in the WSIS conference is reflected in the venue of the conference, in an exposition park at a distance from the city center, reached via a heavily guarded road. Only delegates with conference badges can even approach the site.

At a panel in the WSIS compound organized by Human Rights Watch today on Internet censorship in the Middle East, the question-and-answer period was dominated by individuals representing government-approved Tunisian organizations, who praised the government and contested the characterization of Tunisia as a country that practiced censorship and surveillance. Human Rights Watch has documented Tunisia’s record with regard to development and restriction of the Internet in a report to be released November 15. The few truly independent Tunisian human rights organizations that are accredited to the WSIS have stayed away, in solidarity with those that are not accredited to attend. No representative of Tunisian organizations that might have been able to share information about Internet surveillance or censorship was present at the panel.

Throughout the day, access to the Web site of the Citizen’s Summit, www.citizens-summit.org, was intermittently unavailable in Tunisia. Tunisian human rights activists have also reported difficulty accessing their usual email services.
(end)
--------------------------

Tunisia: Alongside a world summit, the police ban a gathering of international and Tunisian associations

(Tunis, November 14) The Tunisian authorities have forbidden Tunisian and foreign associations to hold a meeting in order to prepare an event within the World Summit on the Information Society this morning. This meeting was aiming to organize a “Citizen’s Summit” to debate the topics mentioned within the agenda of the WSIS, which is sponsored by the United Nations.

About ten civil policemen have prevented access to the Goethe Institute – the German cultural center – where the meeting was to take place. The policemen violently shoved the participants who attempted to regain the meeting place, without identifying themselves or providing a reason, forcing the participants to leave. Among the participants who were forced to leave were Souhayr Belhassen, the Vice President of the Tunisian Human Rights League, Sihem Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri and Om Zied from the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (which is not recognized by the authorities), Mahmoud Dahouadi, a member of the Tunisian Journalists Union (also not recognized by the authorities), as well as some representatives from international organizations, like la Federation Internationale de la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (Paris), Human Rights Watch (New York), Front Line (Dublin), World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters (Montreal), Association for Progressive Communication (Johannesburg) and the Human Rights Caucus for the World Summit on the Information Society.

The under-signed associations deplore this repeated violation of the right to assemble in Tunisia. It is all the more regrettable to see that the Tunisian authorities violate this right when Tunisia hosts the WSIS, a global UN event that is supposed to promote access to information.

Conseil National des Libertés en Tunisie
Sihem Bensedrine

Fédération International des Ligues de droits de l’Homme
Antoine Madellin

Front Line
Andrew Anderson

Human Rights Watch
Eric Goldstein

Ligue Tunisienne de défense des droits de l’Homme
Souhayr Belhassen

World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters
Steve Buckley

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