Conference on Freedom of Expression and the Information Society
  IFEX report puts spotlight on Tunisian human rights record
  23 February 2005. A fact-finding mission by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) network has discovered serious violations of the right to freedom of expression in Tunisia. On Tuesday, member organizations of IFEX held a panel conference at the Geneva PrepCom to present their report. The WSIS Secretariat has tried to limit the distribution of the report.

IFEX is a network of 64 organizations investigating freedom of expression worldwide. As there have been wide-spread concerns regarding the situation of freedom of expression in the host country of WSIS2, Tunisia, IFEX formed a Tunisia Monitoring Group which went on its first fact-finding mission to Tunisia in January 2005. Luckson Chipare, the convenor of IFEX, introduced the report and summarized its findings. According to IFEX, many websites are blocked in Tunisia, journalists have been imprisoned, there is police harassment of independent reporting, and there is press censorship. IFEX has demanded an unconditional release of all political prisoners and an end to censorship, and has recommended that websites are no longer blocked and that a travel ban on human rights activists is lifted. The network has asked for further discussions on these issues with the Tunisian government.

Two Tunisian human rights activists complemented the reports by adding descriptions of other human rights aspects in Tunisia. Sihem Bensedrine from the Conseil National des Libertes en Tunisie told the audience how she is not allowed to move around freely as she pleases in Tunisia. Many international observers, she said, have been sent back when trying to enter the country, and the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit prisons. Souhayr Belhassen from the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme said that in fact the situation is even more worrying than described in the report, as the basic rights of citizens are not recognized in Tunisia. Recently, anti-terrorism laws have been used against civil rights activists. She appealed to the international community to put pressure on Tunisia to respect human rights.

The reports and presentations met a lot of opposition from Tunisian representatives who made up a large part of the audience and who tried to paint a more positive picture of Tunisia and to discredit the report. However, their claims that there cannot be human rights violations in Tunisia because the two activists on the plenary were not imprisoned certainly left a strange aftertaste.

The strong attendance of Tunisians at the event corresponds with a dramatic rise in the attendance of civil society working groups and caucuses during PrepCom2. This has included specifically the Media Caucus and the Community Media Working Group. According to participants in these groups, the reason for this has not been a sudden rise in the interest of journalists in the WSIS, but the fact that these groups have focused fiercely on promoting freedom of expression, particularly in the host country of Tunisia. They have therefore attracted a large number of government-friendly Tunisian NGO people who seek to influence debates and positions.

On Wednesday the Executive Secretariat has limited the possibilities for distributing the IFEX report in the PrepCom building. At the time of writing this article, it was unclear whether this has been the result of an intervention by the Tunisian government.

Please find the press release of the report here.

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