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Information Summit Closes Amid Criticism of Tunisian Censorship

As the United Nations wrapped up its three-day summit on information technology in Tunis Friday, there was mounting criticism of Tunisia's restrictions on the free flow of information.

A statement issued by the U.S. delegation says Washington is disappointed that the Tunisian government did not take advantage of the summit to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly.

Earlier, the head of the delegation, John Marburger told a plenary session that governments should not stand in the way of people seeking to send and receive information across the Internet.

Throughout the week, international media freedom groups and human rights organizations have criticized Tunisia's human rights record and questioned why the U.N. chose to hold a summit on information technology in a country where censorship is routine.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch charged that Tunisia blocks web sites critical of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his government and has jailed citizens for expressing their opinions online.

Representatives from the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said they were prevented by Tunisian police from meeting with a local human rights organization during the summit.

France called on Tunisia to uphold press freedoms after a French reporter investigating the country's human rights practices was stabbed in the run-up to the summit.

Tunisian civil society groups that planned to hold a meeting on the margins of the summit said they were forced to cancel the gathering after being harassed by local authorities.

Perhaps the most forthright criticism came from Switzerland's president, Samuel Schmid, who, at the summit's opening ceremony and in the presence of Mr. Ben Ali, said countries that imprison their citizens because they criticize the government should not be members of the United Nations. The Tunisian president was visibly not amused.

Questioned by reporters at the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that he had raised the topic of civil liberties directly with the Tunisian leader. But he also defended the U.N.'s decision to hold the meeting in Tunisia.

"I have raised these issues of human rights and other access and freedom issues with the authorities," said Mr. Annan. "But the fact that the meeting is taking place here, where you said Internet access is limited, should be encouraging to all of you. The objective of the summit was to open up and expand Internet access and ensure that people everywhere do have access and can use it to improve their conditions and their lives."

Seven years ago, only 5,000 Tunisians had access to the Internet. Now, nearly 800,000 go online out of a population of 10 million. But human rights groups say that Tunisia's gains in spreading the use of the Internet among its citizens have been balanced by its desire to control that use.

The Tunisian government rejects any suggestion that it violates human rights or limits legitimate access to traditional or electronic media. It says press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and that opposition parties can publish their own newspapers and express their views without any constraints.

But a study released this week by the Open Net Initiative, which investigates and challenges state attempts to control internet access, found that nearly 10 percent of the 2,000 sites it had tested from within Tunisia were blocked. The group, a consortium of researchers from Harvard, Toronto and Cambridge universities, reported that Tunisian authorities use aggressive filtering tactics to block websites of political opposition groups, western and Tunisian human rights groups and sites that tell people how to get around internet filtering.