The choice of Tunisia to host the November 16-18 second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has provoked much controversy. The idea behind the summit is to bridge the gap between rich and poor countries in a field that has proven to be one of the focal points of present and future progress. Tunisia, however, excels neither in informatics and related fields nor in allowing freedom of expression and respecting the rights of civil society. A September 26 report by the Tunisian Monitoring Group stated specifically that “Tunisia is not the appropriate country to host the Information Society summit,” especially in view of escalating measures targeting free speech.
The Tunisian authorities have been working for months on creating a “new look” for the world, exploiting preparations for the summit to improve the image of the country in terms of the media, human rights and civil society. A regulation requiring all newspapers to submit editions to the government in advance of publication, which led to widespread self-censorship, was revoked in May. Numerous other problems remain, however, for opposition newspapers such as the weekly Al-Mawqif, mouthpiece of the Progressive Democratic Party. Opposition newspapers still suffer from frequent confiscations and lack of access to public sector advertising revenues.
As part of their cosmetic efforts, the Tunisian authorities loosened restrictions on television and radio and created new radio stations such as Mosaic FM and Al-Jawhara, as well as the satellite television station Hanbal. These stations are run by individuals close to the government, while members of the independent media wait to obtain licenses to form new stations. Independents will not obtain licenses, in view of the fact that the legislation for loosening restrictions on television and radio media is riddled with loopholes.
This “new look” for Tunisia amounts to no more than an effort to mislead the world into missing the forest for the trees. The Tunisian authorities continue to repress all those who dare question the legitimacy of the political authority as well as its respect for public freedoms and rights.
In April, a Tunisian court sentenced Mohammad Abbou, a lawyer and human rights activist, to three-and-a-half years in prison. Abbou was sentenced after publishing two articles, one of which compared the situation of Tunisian prisons to Abu Ghraib, and the other that compared President Zein al-Abedin ben Ali to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (in reference to the expected visit of the latter to Tunisia for the summit). The International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners described the decision against Abbou as “a thunderbolt,” adding that “for the first time in the history of Tunisian justice, a defendant was overtly denied his right to defend himself.”
Measures against free expression escalated further when the Tunisian authorities cancelled the first conference of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, founded by independent journalists, to have been held in early September. Human rights organizations expressed surprise at this decision, especially as syndicate activities are a right provided for in the Tunisian Constitution as well as in international agreements to which Tunisia is party. Authorities also took measures to restrict the Tunisian League for Human Rights and the Association of Tunisian Judges.
Even if one sets aside the concerns of those in the politically-active elite, ordinary Tunisians are also deprived of information because only a single point of view and limited sources of information are tolerated. Even surfing the Internet is fraught with obstacles because many foreign sites are banned.
What is strange is that Tunisia has been at times a pioneer in many fields such as media and human rights, especially in terms of its legislation and organizations. The Tunisian League for Human Rights, for example, was the first non-governmental organization in the Arab world charged with defending human rights. But like many other such organizations it is now barely surviving, hoping for deeper political reforms or foreign pressures that will strike a balance between economic interests and the need for democracy.
Tunisian civil society organizations, along with those in media and human rights groups, are hoping to use the WSIS as an opportunity to demand their foremost right : to exist. So far Tunisian authorities deny this right and continue their harassment of such forces. The silence of Western countries – or even in some cases their approval of repressive Tunisian policies, in light of the so-called war on terror – has only exacerbated the situation.
It is possible, rather it is imperative, for the international community to use the summit to turn a spotlight on the problems that have afflicted Tunisian society and led to an all-time high in internal tensions. As the summit will be held in Tunisia, the international community must at least use that opportunity to apply its recommendations both to faraway countries and to the host country itself.
Bassam Bounenni is a Tunisian journalist and researcher based in Paris. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.