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In letter to UN secretary general, IFEX-TMG raises concerns about continuous attacks on freedom of expression

(IFEX-TMG) - The following is an IFEX-TMG joint letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon:

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

Dear Secretary General,

We are writing to you, for the second time since January, to express our great concern at the continuous attacks on freedom of expression by the Tunisian authorities since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunis two years ago. As you know, this month also marks President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's celebration of the 20th anniversary of his accession to power on 7 November.

Following your comments that reportedly appear to embrace the legacy of President Ben Ali, we would like to take this opportunity to point out that economic growth in Tunisia has come at the cost of sacrificing human rights, in particular freedom of expression.

There are now 18 members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), established in 2004 under the umbrella of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to assess the freedom of expression situation in Tunisia surrounding the second phase of WSIS. We welcomed in July the release of 21 political prisoners, including Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer, who spent 28 months in prison only for criticising President Ben Ali's autocratic rule and denouncing the use of torture and the lack of independence of the judiciary.

But unfortunately, the release of Abbou and other political prisoners was neither preceded nor followed by concrete measures to end the siege on freedom of expression, as reported in April by a TMG fact-finding mission ( ), and recorded by local and international human rights groups this year.

Since his release, Abbou was three times prevented from leaving Tunisia - most recently to attend an event on Tunisia in Washington, D.C. co-organised by the IFEX-TMG and other international human rights organisations. Like other attacks on the right to freedom of movement suffered by hundreds of human rights and political activists and their relatives, the decision to prevent him from travelling has no legal ground under Tunisian law and violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Tunisia ratified in 1969.

Many Tunisians continue to reluctantly resort to long and life-threatening hunger strikes to protest gross violations of their right to freedom of assembly, expression and movement enshrined in Tunisia's Constitution and the ICCPR. The most recent hunger strikers are Mohamed Nouri, a human rights lawyer and Slim Boukhdhir, a freelance journalist. Both went on hunger strike on 1 November, to denounce political restrictions on their right to leave the country.

In September, Nejib Chebbi, managing director of the opposition weekly "Al-Mawkif" and Maya Jribi, secretary general of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which owns this weekly went on a 30-day hunger strike to protest the authorities' harassment and use of the judicial system to evict "Al-Mawkif" from the premises it has been using in Tunis for nearly 13 years. The hunger strike came to an end only after the authorities refrained amid local and international protests from implementing a politically motivated court ruling ordering the eviction of "Al-Mawkif". Other journalists, such as Abdallah Zouari and Hamadi Jebali of the banned weekly "Al Fajr" and former political prisoners and Lotfi Hajji, correspondent of Al-Jazeera TV are still harassed, and their right to freedom of movement and to work is tightly restricted.

In August, Omar Mestiri, managing editor of the locally blocked online magazine "Kalima" was summoned to appear in court on charges of defamation at a time when Tunisian courts were in annual recess. The charges, which were filed by a lawyer close to the government, were later withdrawn amid protests from local and international human rights groups. Meanwhile, Gamal Eid, an Egyptian human right lawyer was denied a visa to Tunisia to monitor Mestiri's trial. This was not the first time Eid was denied an entry visa by the Tunisian embassy in Cairo.

Mestiri's trial is reminiscent of Abbou who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for posting articles on a news web site blocked by the country's Internet police. A study published by the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration between research institutes at four universities in Canada, Britain and the United States, identified Tunisia as one of the top countries in the world censoring political web sites.

We would like also to draw your attention, once again, to the constant use of the judiciary to cripple and silence independent groups like the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the oldest of its kind in the Arab world, and the Association of Tunisia Magistrates (AMT), whose democratically elected board has been ousted in 2005.

Furthermore, plain clothes police continue to harass and assault with impunity leading figures of LTDH and AMT and also those of the banned National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), the International Association to Support Political Prisoners (AISPP), Freedom and Equity (FE), the Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary (CTIJ), The Association Against Torture in Tunisia (ALTT) and Freedom and Equity (FE).

On August 31, the office of Ayachi Hammami, a prominent human rights lawyer, was set on fire. Most of his documents, including his clients' file, were destroyed, along with his personal computer. Hammami told journalists that he was targeted because he was working on a report about the plight of the judiciary in Tunisia to be presented at a seminar to be organised by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) in Paris in September.

Another recent and frequent target of the country's ubiquitous plainclothes police is also an outspoken human rights lawyer: Abderraouf Ayadi was assaulted and beaten up on 1 November, to prevent him from paying a visit in Tunis to Nouri and Boukhdhir who were on hunger strike.

The launch in September of a religious private radio station, Zeitouna, by Mohamed Sakhr Al-Materi, one of President Ben Ali's sons-in-law came as a reminder of the absence of transparent and fair guidelines, as far as authorising the establishment of private broadcasting, which remains so far in the hands of individuals related to President Ben Ali. So does the business of the local Internet providers.

As no genuine step has been made by the Tunisian government to improve its declining freedom of expression record since the second phase of the WSIS, which your predecessor, His Excellency Kofi Annan, described as a "good opportunity" for this government "to address various human rights record, including those related to freedom of opinion and expression," we think that the time has come to put an end to infringements of the United Nations' values and principles which are continuously and grossly abused in Tunisia. It would therefore be decisive if you would press the government of President Ben Ali to allow UN rapporteurs to visit upon request, particularly the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, as well as your Special Representative on the situation of human rights defenders.

Like local and international human rights groups we have ample evidence that the Tunisian government has been using since 2003 so-called "anti-terror legislation" to further restrict basic human rights, including freedom of expression, and to spread fear and self-censorship among Tunisians, particularly journalists and human rights defenders.

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


Carl Morten Iversen
Secretary General, Norwegian PEN

Members of the IFEX-TMG:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, United Kingdom
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Cartoonists Rights Network (CRN), United States
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, United Kingdom
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers' Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Maharat Foundation, Lebanon
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), United States
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), United Kingdom

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

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