By Maud Hand GENEVA, Switzerland, 01 April 2005
The Swiss Press Centre was packed as journalists from every media jostled for position at the Amnesty International’s Press conference, WSIS in Tunis: an Information Summit under Repression, held on 16th February. This was one of two press conferences taking place during Prepcom 2, initiated by the WSIS Human Rights Caucus, to draw attention to Tunisia’s handling of human rights.
The panel, which included Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian journalist, together with Meryem Marzouki for the Human Rights Caucus, Denys Robillard of Amnesty International and Wolf Ludwig, co-president of Comunica-ch, shared solid examples of how Tunisian journalists and civil society representatives are hindered on a daily basis as they go about their work.
WHO’D WANT TO BE A JOURNALIST IN TUNISIA?
There’s the case of Abdallah Zouari, a journalist with All-Fajr, an Islamic fundamentalist journal, sentenced in October 2003 to a cumulative penalty of 13 months for "defamation" against the owner of a cybercafe in Zarzis because he said that she hadn’t let him enter her cybercafe. He’s also accused of "infraction to administrative control measures" because he left Zarziz, having previously been obliged to stay in the town for 5 years following an 11 year prison sentence for "membership of an illegal organization".
Another journalist, Jalel Zoghlami and his brother, Nejib, (now in prison since November 2004) are constantly harassed by Tunisian police on false charges, primarily because Jalel is the editor of Kaws El Karama, an online left-of-centre journal openly critical of the Tunisian government.
Under the leadership of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and in power since 1994, Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) won 92% of the vote in 1999 and applies a ‘heavy-handed’ approach to internal security. Respected internationally for keeping radical Islamic opposition groups under control, Ben Ali’s strategy is stifling for most ordinary Tunisians.
YOUNG CYBERNAUTS OF ZARZIS
Last April eight internet users from the Southern city of Zarzis were sentenced to 26 years in prison having been accused of promoting terrorist attacks on little evidence other than files downloaded from Islamist websites in a local cybercafé.
One of the mothers of these youths attended Prepcom 2 to highlight their plight.
“By all means punish them if they’re guilty,” says Meryem Marzouki on behalf of the WSIS Human Rights Caucus, “but first give them a fair trial based on concrete evidence. As yet, there’s nothing in their file to indict them.”
A senior computer science researcher with the Paris-based CNRS in her day job, Marzouki is the voluntary President of IRIS, a French NGO specializing in human rights. She’s half Tunisian, half French and passionate about what’s happening in Tunisia even though she left it 20 years ago to work in Paris.
BLOCKED PIPES …
“If the information society is to have any real meaning, it’s much more than pipes and technical infrastructure. So I’ve been active in WSIS since its inception, to ensure that the process equally embraces all human issues – economic, social and cultural rights.”
Meryem and her Human Rights Caucus colleagues were disappointed by the end of WSIS Phase 1. “Rather than having human rights interpreted in the context of the information society and at the highest possible ranking, we just about succeeded in keeping a reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the WSIS Declaration of Principles, something which had already been adopted over 50 years ago!” she reflects ruefully.
“Even two months before the summit, China, renowned for its blatant bad-guy attitude to human rights, was still asking to remove the reference to the UDHR as its inclusion would mean a commitment from governments.”
True to form, China has denied WSIS accreditation to Human Rights in China, a New York-based NGO and the only Chinese organization working on behalf of human rights.
“It’s critical that we push to get this NGO accreditation,” says Meryem, “it must be addressed at the official government sessions and not based on bogus excuses that the paperwork’s been mislaid!”
WHERE DID I PUT THAT DOSSIER? DOH!
China isn’t the only government partial to mislaying WSIS applications for accreditation from civil society members it would rather silence. Ben Ali’s Tunisian government is a past-master, according to Souhayr Belhassen, Vice President of both the Tunisian Human Rights League and the International Federation for Human Rights.
“Were there genuine freedom of association and representation, you’d have hundreds of civil society organizations in Tunisia and in attendance here at Prepcom 2. As it is, many organizations in our country are not legally recognized.”
Meryem endorses this, citing first the example of a left-wing pal of hers whose passion is ornithology, yet he’s not allowed to organize a bird-watching group in Tunis. Then there’s the monthly online cultural and social journal she runs herself with a Tunisian friend. “You can rarely access it in Tunisia because the government censors it even though it’s not directly political.”
NOTHING TO PUT IN THE PIPES
Ironically internet penetration in Tunisia is 6.4%, which after South Africa, is the highest on the continent of Africa. Yet 6 out of 7 Tunisian Internet users have email accounts provided by foreign internet service provieders as there are very few Tunisian Internet hosts.
“The figures suggest we’ve got a good infrastructure but what good are the pipes if we’ve nothing to circulate in them?” asks an infuriated Souhayr Belhassen.
“The constant surveillance, monitoring and censorship inhibit us as Internet users and civil society members. And we lose out economically if most of our users have accounts abroad. We need our freedom to exercise our citizenship if we’re to use this communication tool to our advantage,” she insists.
WE’RE PASSIONATE IN TUNISIA
Yet when Souhayr and others cited the case studies on human rights abuses in Tunisia at the press conferences, the pro-government Tunisians were apoplectic with rage, not least Moncef Achour. This tall mustachioed government delegate to the WSIS Secretariat, is responsible for the country’s civil society division yet his WSIS input could hardly be considered civil.
Achour, along with Tunisian journalists who toe the government line or who head up ‘civil society’ organizations ratified by the government, deny censorship and dogmatically insist on Tunisia’s exemplary track record.
One particularly vocal individual is the television journalist, Houda Ben Othman. As anchor woman on the state-controlled ERTT and stringer for CNN’s Inside Africa, she’s troubled by what she calls “the selfishness of those journalists and civil society activists who put themselves, rather than their country first.”
COME SEE FOR YOURSELF!
Houda’s not pretending that “it’s heaven!” Tunisia, she argues, is still an emerging country. “I may not have 100% freedom. There’s only one major TV company but at least I’m in my own country rather than being a slave to some Middle Eastern television service.”
But, I wonder, can Houda cover political stories? And, if so what?
“We’re not overtly troubled by politics,” she breezily replies. “Tunisia is a beautiful country. We’ve no wars. Compared to the rest of Africa, we enjoy a good standard of living – nice cars, good apartments. (60% of citizens are middleclass) We don’t want any hassle, we’re calm. Women don’t have to wear the veil AND they get equal pay to men. Come see for yourself. My CNN colleagues were really impressed by how emancipated we are here.”
Visions of the CNN crew basking in the luxurious hotels, hamams and hideaways of Tunisia come to mind. And no doubt, I’d be treated to the same generous hospitality by Houda were I to accept her invitation.
But luckily there’ve been more objective visitors to Tunisia of late, not least the joint monitoring group of members from the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). Their purpose was to evaluate the state of freedom of expression in Tunisia and to assess the conditions for participation in the summit.
While Western governments, the US in particular, consider Tunisia an African success story, not least because it suppresses Islamic fundamentalist groups and is economically buoyant, IFEX found cause for concern.
Their meetings with Tunisian writers, publishers, human rights organizations as well as government officials and government-sponsored agencies, uncovered the following:
-blocking of websites including news and information websites
-blocking of 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 movement of human rights activists together with police
-surveillance, intimidation and interception of communications
-lack of pluralism in broadcast ownership, with only one private
-press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers
-imprisonment of individuals for their opinions and media activities
-use of torture by the security services without impunity
DON’T BE A SPOIL SPORT!
When challenged with these facts, Houda is evasive and insists that certain Tunisians simply “want to deny 6 million Africans the opportunity of hosting the WSIS summit and that’s just not fair,” she pleads.
“Houda and her cohorts are just determined to stop us from speaking the truth,” says Taïeb Moalla, an independent Tunisian journalist living in Quebec. “Of course the Summit is a great opportunity for Tunisia and the South in general but we must keep human rights firmly on the agenda, and not just for Tunisia but for the whole world.
Moalla files for Radio Canada, Le Soleil, La Presse and an array of French broadsheets. He left Tunisia for Quebec in frustration at the restrictions on him professionally.
Another frustrated Tunisian journalist active at Prepcom 2 was Rachid Khechana who writes for El Hayat, an Arabic daily as well as edits El Maoukif, one of the few Tunisian opposition newspapers and organ of the Democrat Progressive Party, PDP. , Al Mouhat
“We go to print on a Tuesday. The government then vets the copy. Depending on the content, they may or may not release it by Friday so by the time it reaches the public, it’s old news. It’s worse than operating in the former Soviet Gulag,”
IN THE SUMMIT SPOTLIGHT
Yet Khashana and his fellow-Tunisian journalists and civil society activists are just as pleased as Houda Ben Othman that the summit is scheduled to happen in Tunisia, albeit for different reasons. “At least it will beam the international spotlight on Tunisia and force our government to relent on its repressive practices.”
Ben Othman and the pro-government posse protest that these civil society activists are expecting too much from Tunisian civil society.
“It’s still a very new concept in Tunisia, never mind the Arab world. If we had a civil society in the past it was purely for the educated elite. At least now we’ve made progress in education, family planning and women’s rights thanks to the vision of President Bourguiba, (Ben Ali’s predecessor). So we deserve a chance to develop.”
ARBRE Á PALABRES
“Nonsense,” says Meryem Marzouki, “The concept of civil society in Tunisia is as ancient as our ancestors. Long before we were formally educated, community members gathered together under a tree, arbre á palabres to discuss the problems of the village. That’s civil society at its best and it doesn’t require any formal education. In any case the Tunisian Human Rights League was set up in 1977 and is one of the oldest organizations of its sort in the Arab world.
Souhayr Belhassen concurs. “There’s a tradition of opposition and dissidents here and we will continue to exercise our civil rights by demanding that certain conditions are met by the Tunisian government before the November Summit.
The conditions are simple:
-freedom of association and recognition of civil society organizations
-freeing of the young Zarzis internet users
-an end to censorship and suppression of freedom of expression
legalization of alternative newspapers, journals and broadcasting outfits
Belhassen, Marzouki and their kindred civil society representatives are hopeful but not naïve. “Prepcom 3 will be a time of assessment and decisions.”
“We’re not a military gang,” adds Taïeb Moalla. “We just want to fight with pen and newspapers for genuine freedom of expression.”
And maybe some day sooner rather than later, Houda Ben Othman and her broadcasting colleagues will have Moalla, Marzouki et al to thank for increased professional choices, if their vision of a more open democratic society succeeds in Tunisia. Then the life work of people like recently-deceased journalist, Zouhair Yahyaoui, the founder and editor of the satirical website TUNeZINE will not have been in vain. Then, and only then … il ferait vraiment bon vivre en Tunisie!