Freedom of Expression in Tunisia Still Under Siege Over One Year After WSIS

Thursday, January 18, 2007

H.E. Ban Ki Moon
Secretary General
United Nations
First Avenue at 46th Street
New York, NY 10017
Fax: +1 212 963 7055 / 4879

January 18, 2007

Excellency,

As members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), established in 2004 under the umbrella of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), we are writing to express our deep concern at the continuous violations of this basic right by the Tunisian authorities since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunis in November 2005. The TIMG, now composed of 16 IFEX members, was set up to evaluate the freedom of expression situation in Tunisia prior to and in the aftermath of the second phase of the in November 2005.

On September 2, 2005 and following two fact-finding missions to Tunisia which brought to the attention of the international community the unprecedented attacks on freedom of expression in that country's recent history, we wrote to your predecessor. We called on Secretary General Kofi Annan to "strongly encourage the Tunisian authorities to act to put an end to these attacks, which in the minds of many call into question Tunisia's suitability to host the World Summit on the Information Society." In a public reaction to our open letter, the second of its kind since 2004, Mr. Annan declared that the holding of the WSIS in Tunis offered "a good opportunity for the Government of Tunisia to address various human rights concerns, including those related to freedom of opinion and expression."

Unfortunately, Mr. Annan's optimistic and encouraging statement was totally ignored by the Tunisian authorities, who chose to defiantly carry on with their policies of harassment and intimidation of independent journalists and human rights defenders on the eve as well as in the wake of WSIS. These attacks, documented by human rights groups and also by Western diplomats based in Tunis, went on unabated even after the Tunisian government won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in May 2006.

Most recently, the Tunisian government has once again engaged in censorship with its Soviet-style handling of deadly clashes between security forces and armed groups in the end of December 2006 and in early January 2007 in the Southern suburbs of Tunis. We were once again shocked by the unacceptable disregard of the Tunisian population's basic right to information about these incidents. In fact, neither President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali nor his government have responded to local and international journalists' requests for details of the incident, which left 14 people dead, including two members of the security forces, according to official sources.

It seems that Tunisians can only get accurate information about important events in their country through reports from international or Arab media, particularly Al-Jazeera, whose correspondent in Tunisia and those who are interviewed are often intimidated and harassed by plainclothes police.

Local and international human rights groups have expressed fear that the widening circle of repression and injustice will further undermine the stability and the future of a country which was regarded by many outside Tunisia as one of the most qualified Arab countries to turn into democracy.

One of the most prominent victims of the cycle of torture and injustice today is Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer currently in prison for pieces he wrote for online sites. Abbou's wife and children, as well as rights defenders and journalists, such as Neziha Rejiba, Sihem Ben Sedrine, Radhia Nasraoui, Moncef Marzouki, Hamadi Jebali, Abdallah Zouari, Ali Ben Salem, Souhayer Belhassen and Lotfi Hajji are among the favourite targets of the ministry of the interior and its plainclothes police and thugs.

We would like also to draw your attention to the unrelenting police and judicial harassment of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the oldest rights group in Africa and the Arab world. On 3 February, a court in Tunis postponed once again its hearing of the complaint filed against this human rights group by members of President Ben Ali's political party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally. The 30-year old LTDH has been denied the right to hold its general meeting since September 2005; so has the beleaguered Tunisian Journalists Syndicate.

Other groups such as the IFEX member, the Observatory for Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC), and the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), the Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, the International Association to Support Political Prisoners, the League for Free Writers and Raid-Attac Tunisia are arbitrarily denied the right to function under Tunisian law.

As the behaviour of the authorities has not improved since the WSIS was held in Tunis, we request and would very much appreciate your assistance in urging the Tunisian government to take the following steps to see the country's declining freedom of expression record improved:

1. Release from prison human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou who is imprisoned, like hundreds of other Tunisians, on charges related to the peaceful exercise of his basic right to freedom of expression and association.

Local, regional and international rights groups and Western governments maintain that these prisoners, known worldwide as political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, have neither used nor advocated the use of violence and have been denied the right to a fair trial.

Abbou was apprehended by the police in the streets of Tunis on March 1, 2005, less than 24 hours after posting an opinion piece on the Internet criticising the Tunisian government's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the WSIS.

Paradoxically, he was sentenced by a criminal court in Tunis, following an unfair trial on April 28, 2005, to three-and-a-half years of imprisonment for publishing statements "likely to disturb public order" and for "defaming the judicial process" and also for alleged "violence", nearly four years ago, against a female lawyer close to the government. A Tunisian appeals court on June 10, 2005 confirmed his prison sentence following a hearing that fell far short of international standards for a fair trial, according to human rights defenders and diplomats in attendance. (The opinion piece used to indict Abbou was not the one he posted on the Internet on the eve of his arrest by the police, but another posted in August 2004 in which he compared the inhumane conditions in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to those prevailing in Tunisian prisons.)

2. End harassment of human rights groups and journalists such as the judicial harassment of the Tunisian League for Human Rights and intimidation and assault of its members; and the arbitrary administrative sanctions and police harassment compelling journalist A bdallah Zouari to live 500 km from his wife and children and preventing him from earning a living or using public Internet cafés.

3. Release all banned books and publications, including those written by prominent democracy advocates like Mohamed Talbi and Moncef Marzouki, and edited by institutions committed to human rights education.

4. Recognise the inalienable right of civil society groups to operate freely and without any form of harassment of their leading figures and members. In particular, we call for the recognition of and respect for the right to freedom of association of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, the Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, the International Association to Support Political Prisoners, the League for Free Writers, Raid-Attac Tunisia and many other civil society groups.

We are concerned at the removal in 2005 by the authorities of the democratically elected leadership of the Executive Board of the Tunisian Association of Magistrates (TAM). This is especially troubling within the context of the absence of an independent judiciary in Tunisia. The eviction of the legitimate leadership of TAM is an obvious attack on the law of associations and on the statutes of TAM.

5. End harassment of independent publishers, writers and journalists and leading figures of the Tunisian Journalists' Syndicate, whose establishment in May 2004 was in conformity with the Tunisian Labour Code.

6. End the abusive application of the Law on Terrorism of December 10, 2003 which local and international human rights groups say unfortunately turned out to be a tool to silence and punish critics of the government.

7. Assure that the right to establish media outlets is not solely reserved to individuals or groups close to the government and establish a fair and transparent procedure for the award of broadcast licenses through an independent regulatory body. Lift arbitrary decisions preventing the launch of different papers, including "Kalima" and the weekly "L'Expression" of the privately-owned Assabah Group.

8. Ensure that the right to access Internet cafés and to freely surf the Web is not restricted and end the practice of blocking websites for their informational or political content.

The blatant conflict between the United Nations' values and principles on the one hand and Tunisia's record on freedom of expression and media freedom on the other hand cannot be ignored any longer, particularly after taking the responsibility to hold the WSIS in Tunis and the election of Tunisia to the UN Human Rights Council in May 2006.

Thank you for your attention to this letter. We look forward to your early reply.

Sincerely,
Members of the IFEX-TMG:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo.net), 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