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Tunisia: Free Expression Protest
Nov 17, 2005 (051117)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
Tunisia, which is currently hosting the World Summit on the
Information Society, is one of the most advanced African countries
in provision of information infrastructure. But it also
systematically represses internal dissent and blocks access to
websites critical of the government. As the summit opened this
week, Tunisian human rights activists were on hunger strike and
international activists were protesting the government's refusal to
allow freedom of expression.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a message from human rights
campaigners on hunger strike in Tunisia, and excerpts from a
background report from the Tunisia Monitoring Goup on the issues of
freedom of expression in Tunisia.
For up-to-date information on the hunger strike and freedom of
expression issues in Tunisia, see http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg
Additional detailed background can be found in a report by Amnesty International released on November 14
For an earlier AfricaFocus Bulletin on Tunisia, with additional
references for background information, visit
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Message from the Hunger Strikers
To the World Summit on the Information Society
November 16, 2005
[Source for this statement and additional background information is
the Tunisia Monitoring Group. This is a coalition of 14 organisations set up in
2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and
following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 14 organisations are
all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a
global network of 64 national, regional and international organisations committed to
defending the right to freedom of expression. See http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg]
Mr. Secretary General of the United Nations
As representatives of political parties and civil society
associations, on hunger strike for rights and freedoms in Tunisia, we welcome you and wish
you success in your work.
It is a great honour for us that the international community chose
Tunisia to host a world conference concerning the great problems presented by
the development of new technologies, such as the digital divide between
nations of the North and those of the South and the governance of the Internet
on a world scale.
The bridging of the digital divide poses problems not only of a
financial nature. The Declaration of Principles and the Action Plan of the first WSIS
phase do not fail to underline the importance of freedom of expression and
opinion such as the role of television and broadcasting in reducing this divide. Nor do
they fail to insist on the imperative of open access to all levels of
information technologies in the struggle against poverty, ignorance and under-development.
In this regard we would like to inform you that we have been
observing a hunger strike for thirty days in order to reclaim three fundamental
objectives: freedom of association, freedom of the press and the liberation of
political prisoners. The Internet is censored, the media are monopolized by a party in
power for the past 50 years; the constitution of parties and associations, as
well as newspaper publishing, are subject to the discretion of the Minister of the
Interior. No effective judicial control exists in a country where judicial power
itself is submissive to the executive power. It is not surprising in these
conditions that thousands of political prisoners, of every tendency, have known the
pangs of torture, imprisonment and ill treatment. Hundreds of them languish
in prisons, exposed to the most inhuman treatment and without hope of seeing
their martyrdom coming to an end for many long years.
The United Nations has not ceased to draw the attention of the
Tunisian government concerning the deplorable state in which Tunisia is
confined, a country that is peaceful, open to liberal traditions and whose
elites enjoy a high level of education and culture. This situation is not only
prejudicial to human dignity, it is also contrary to the imperatives of good
governance. It constitutes, for this reason, the principle obstacle to the pursuit
of our economic and social progress in a globalized world where
competition and human intelligence represent the principle source of wealth and progress.
Mr. Secretary General,
We consider the first condition for the success of your work and
for the acceptance of your programmes rests in harmonizing words and
actions. Our wish is to see you link beautiful declarations concerning the intention
to adopt concrete measures to effectively reduce the digital divide with an
obligation for States which still do not respect human rights to honour their
international commitments and to guarantee to their citizens fundamental freedoms
and rights, written in their own constitutions. Democracy is not a mere matter
of internal politics but an imperative of stability, peace and international
In repeating our sincere wishes of success, please accept, Mr.
Secretary General, our respectful greetings.
Tunis, November 16, 2005
The hunger strikers:
Ahmed Njib Chebbi: Secretary General of the Progressive Democratic
Hamma Hammami: spokesperson of the Communist Workers Party of
Abderraouf Ayadi: Vice-president of the Congress for the Republic
Lotfi Hajji: President, Union of Tunisian Journalists
Ayachi Hammami: President of the Mohammed Abbou Support Committee
and Secretary General of the Tunis section of the Tunisian League for
the Defence of Human Rights
Samir Dilou: member of the board of the International Association
for the Support of Political Prisoners
Mokhtar Yahyaoui: Judge and president of the Tunisian Centre for
Mohamme Nouri: President, International Association for the Support
of Political Prisoners
Report of the Tunisia Monitoring Group on the eve of WSIS
Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Intensifies
[Excerpts. For full report visit http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg]
This is the second report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG)
and follows the latest of a series of fact-finding missions to
Tunisia by members of the group in the run to the World Summit on
the Information Society (WSIS). ...
The third mission, of nine TMG members, took place from 6-11
September 2005, and provided the basis for our first update on
freedom of expression in Tunisia. This report is released two
months before the WSIS Tunis Summit, 16-18 November 2005.
During the course of the three missions the TMG has now met with
over 250 individuals and over 50 organisations and institutions
including members of the government and opposition, public
officials, government supported organisations, independent civil
society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists,
publishers, librarians, private broadcasters and others. During
each of our missions we have sought and been provided with access
to government representatives. We welcome this dialogue and we have
engaged in a frank and open exchange of views.
During the latest mission we met with the Minister of Justice and
Human Rights, the Minister of Communication Technologies and the
Director of the External Communications Agency. In our report we
acknowledge that some improvements have been made or have been
promised, notably with respect to further private radio and
television concessions, commitments to removal of the "dep“t legal"
for periodicals and some improvement in prison conditions, but
serious concerns remain with respect to all of these matters
However, since January 2005, we have disappointingly witnessed
serious deterioration in other conditions related to freedom of
expression in Tunisia, particularly with respect to independent
organisations, harassment of journalists and dissidents,
independence of the judiciary, and the imprisonment of the human
rights lawyer, Mohamed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles
on the Internet. Cumulatively these changes lead us to conclude
that the Tunisian government is seeking to further stifle dissent
on the eve of the WSIS.
In such conditions, two months before WSIS Tunis 2005, Tunisia is
not a suitable place to hold a United Nations World Summit.
We urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the
recommendations we are making in this report and to show a real and
immediate intent to remove the practices we have identified that
violate international human rights laws and standards to which
Tunisia is a signatory.
We call on the international community to take responsibility in
holding Tunisia to account on its international obligations, to
insist on real commitment to change and to ensure that independent
voices in Tunisia are treated with the respect and tolerance of a
rights-based democracy and not the abuses that we consider more
characteristic of a police state.
In the following sections we set out the principal developments
that we have observed since our first report.
About the Tunisia Monitoring Group
The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is a coalition of 14
organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in
Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the
Information Society (WSIS). The 14 organisations are all members of
the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global
network of 64 national, regional and international organizations
committed to defending the right to freedom of expression.
The third mission of the TMG was composed of representatives of
Article 19, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ),
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
(IFLA), International Publishers Association (IPA), Index on
Censorship, PEN Norway, World Association of Community Radio
Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).
Other members of TMG are: Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
(CJFE), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR),
International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, Journalistes en
Danger (JED), Media Institute of South Africa (MISA), World
Association of Newspapers (WAN).
B. FACTS ON THE GROUND
1. Prisoners of opinion
In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed imprisonment of
individuals related to expression of their opinions or media
We recommended to the Tunisian government to release Hamadi Jebali,
editor of the weekly Al Fajr and hundreds of prisoners like him
held for their religious and political beliefs and who never
advocated or used violence We also recommended to end arbitrary
administrative sanctions compelling journalist Abdellah Zouari to
live nearly 500 km away from his wife and children and guarantee
his basic right to freedom of movement and expression We further
recommended release of the six cyber dissidents known as the Youth
of Zarzis who, following unfair trials, have been sentences to
heavy prison terms allegedly for using the Internet to commit
At the time of the second report we have witnessed no progress on
our recommendations. On the contrary, the situation has worsened,
in particular with the imprisonment of Mr. Mohamed Abbou.
We strongly reiterate these recommendations and furthermore we call
for the urgent and immediate release of human rights lawyer Mohamed
2. Internet blocking
In the first report of IFEX TMG we observed blocking of websites,
including news and information websites, and police surveillance of
e-mails and Internet cafes.
We recommended to the Tunisia government to stop the practice of
blocking websites and to cease putting Internet cafes and Internet
users under police surveillance.
At the time of this second report we have witnessed no significant
change and no progress on our recommendations. ...
In January 2005 we undertook technical tests on selected Tunisian
Internet Service Providers. We identified systematic Internet
blocking which we believe to be operated using Smartfilter
software. Internet blocking was applied to wide categories of
sites, but also including specific Tunisian government defined
We have discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government
representatives and with government supported civil society
organisations. They confirmed to us that systematic Internet
blocking takes place however government representatives asserted
that blocking of political and information sites was due to their
"terrorist" or "hate speech" content. Government officials were
unable to describe any judicial or regulatory process that would
enable such assertions to be legitimately challenged in law.
3. Censorship of books
In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed blocking of the
distribution of books and publications.
We recommended to the Tunisian government to release banned books,
end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom
At the time of the second report we have witnessed no significant
change and no progress on our recommendation.
4. Independent organisations
In the first report of IFEX TMG we observed restrictions on the
freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be
legally established and to hold meetings.
We recommended to the Tunisia government to respect international
standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and to
grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups such as
the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), the Tunis
Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, the League of Free
Writers, OLPEC, the International Association to Support Political
Prisoners, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, and
At the time of this second report we have witnessed no progress on
our recommendations. We have also witnessed serious new attacks on
legally recognised but independent organisations including the
Tunisian League of Human Rights and The Tunisian Association of
Magistrates. We consider these attacks to represent a serious
deterioration in respect for human rights.
We strongly reiterate the recommendation that the Tunisian
government must take steps to allow independent organisations to
establish without the requirement for prior political approval.
In addition we call on members of the ruling party, the RCD, to
cease their attacks on the Tunisia League of Human Rights (LTDH).
These attacks are quite clearly and deliberately intended to
undermine an organisation which continues to vigorously defend
human rights in Tunisia and whose independence should be respected.
5. Journalists and dissidents
In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed restrictions on the
freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political
dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment,
intimidation and interception of communications.
We recommended to the Tunisian government to end harassment and
assaults on human rights and political activists and their
relatives and bring to justice those responsible for ordering these
attacks and perpetrating them.
We also recommended action to be taken against interference by
government employees in the privacy of human rights and political
activists and end the withholding of their mail and email.
We further recommended to lift the arbitrary travel ban on human
rights defenders and political activists, including Mokhtar
Yahyaoui and Mohammed Nouri. At the time of the second report we
have witnessed no progress on our recommendations. On the contrary
the situation has worsened in particular in the increased
harassment of independent Tunisian journalists.
We reiterate our very grave concern at systematic harassment of
journalists, activists and dissidents, and urge that immediate
steps be taken to remove political surveillance and harassment of
individuals engaged in the legitimate defence of human rights and
the right to freedom of expression.
6. Broadcast pluralism
In the first report of IFEX TMG we observed lack of pluralism in
broadcast ownership, with only one private radio and one private TV
broadcaster, both believed to be loyal supporters of President Ben
We recommended to the Tunisia government to p romote genuine
pluralism in broadcast content and ownership including fair and
transparent procedures for the award of radio and TV broadcast
At the time of this second report we note and welcome the fact that
a second private radio station has been licensed and that a private
television station has also been authorised. We remain concerned
however that there is no transparent licensing procedure in place
and that the new services, while not under state ownership, have
shown no signs of genuine independence. ...
7. Press Freedom
In the first report of the IFEX TMG we observed press censorship
and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.
We recommended to the Tunisian government to take serious steps
toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and
encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press.
At the time of the second report we have witnessed a step in the
right direction (27 May 2005 announcement to abolish ® d‚p“t l‚gal
¯ for periodicals, which awaits translation into law), but no other
progress on our recommendations.
We therefore reiterate these recommendations.
Further we urge that the 27 May 2005 announcement to abolish ®d‚p“t
legal¯ for periodicals be rapidly brought into law.
We also call on the Ministry of the Interior to respect Article 13
of the Tunisian Press Code enabling the establishment of newspapers
IFEX-TMG welcomed President Ben Ali's announcement of 27 May 2005
to end the "d‚p“t legal" procedure for periodicals. Two opposition
papers: the weekly Al-Mawkif of the Progressive Socialist Party and
the monthly Attarik Al-Jedid of the Renewal Party reported some
immediate improvements. Printers have been instructed to release
these papers for distribution and not to keep them waiting for two
or three days. The announcement is still to be put into law
therefore the improvements noted so far reflect only a more
efficient operation of the existing system of prior censorship.
In the first report of the IFEX TMG we reported credible accounts
of recent use of torture by the security services with impunity.
We recommended to the Tunisian government to allow independent
investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by
At the time of the second report we have witnessed some progress on
prison conditions, but no real progress on our main recommendation.
Despite progress, prison conditions also remain a source of major
We therefore restate the February recommendation and urge that the
Tunisian government take every effort to completely eliminate the
practice of torture by the security services.
President Ben Ali announced in April 2005 a decision to ease the
inhumane conditions inflicted for years on political prisoners. In
particular he announced the ending of the practice of involuntary
solitary confinement, imposed on prisoners like journalist Hamadi
Jebali. In addition it was announced that the International
Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) would be allowed to visit
Tunisian prisons. The TMG and other international human rights
groups have welcomed this.
On the other hand we are aware that prison conditions, in other
respects, have not markedly improved and remain very poor. We
continue to be gravely concerned that torture remains prevalent
within the practices of the security services and that documented
cases of torture are not being properly investigated or open to
proper independent investigation.
As the WSIS draws nearer, attacks on freedom of expression and
freedom of association have escalated since January 2005.
The circle of people targeted by such attacks has also widened. It
is no longer the usual group of uncompromising human rights
defenders, whom Tunisian authorities have been trying to silence by
a number of means, including imprisonment, police harassment and
confiscation of passports.
Journalists, magistrates, academics and others are making it clear
that they too wish to assert and to exercise their right to the
freedom of expression, particularly at a time when the country
braces itself to host the second phase of the World Summit on the
Information Society (WSIS).
Many thought that the WSIS would be a good opportunity for the
Tunisian government to start improving its human rights record and
to loosen its grip over the media, the publishing industry and the
Despite a few positive steps forward, the Tunisia Monitoring Group
concluded, during its third mission, that it would be extremely
difficult to achieve real improvement in respect for the right to
freedom of expression without an independent judiciary and respect
for the rule of law, without an independent media to hold
government and public servants to account, and without freedom of
assembly and association.
Tunisians of different political trends who met with TMG members
maintain that they deserve to live in a democracy and that progress
in terms of rule of law and the right to freedom of expression
needs to be backed by the international community. They argue that
democratic countries in particular should speak out and insist that
the privilege of hosting a United Nations World Summit requires a
demonstrable commitment to upholding internationally agreed human
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