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Rights Groups Criticize Choice of Tunisia as Site for Press Summit - 2003-12-08

As the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society opens in Geneva Wednesday, human rights organizations are already criticizing the choice of Tunisia as the site of the second phase of the summit. The groups are urging summit organizers to press the Tunisian government on basic human rights as a condition to hosting the summit.

Human rights activists say they are astonished that Tunisia was chosen to host a conference which aims to narrow the digital divide between rich and poor. They accuse the Tunisian government of systematically violating freedom of speech and expression.

They say about 600 political opponents have been imprisoned for more than 12 years and that over the past 13 years, 16 journalists have been brought to trial on charges of criticizing the government.

The deputy director of the World Organization against Torture, Anne Laurence Lacroix, says a coalition of human rights groups wants Tunisia to conform to three conditions before it is allowed to hold the second phase of the World Summit in two years.

"The freeing of journalists and others held in prison for their opinions in Tunisia; the appointment of a personality who is not an object of opprobrium at the head of the organizing committee at the second phase of the summit; and, the commitment to allow whole civil society representatives from Tunisia and abroad to participate freely in the work of the summit," she said. "I think we are not here, you know, to condemn the summit in itself. If it is true that it is an opportunity to address the issue and go forward."

Christian Grobet is a lawyer and member of the International Commission of Jurists. He says on two occasions, he and several other people who had gone to Tunisia on fact-finding missions, were refused entry.

Mr. Grobet says the International Telecommunications Union could have made a better choice in finding a host for the summit.

"I think that ITU would have made a very good choice in choosing one of the countries which are building democracy in Africa," he said. "I am thinking for example of Senegal or South Africa where if the conference had been given to such a country, there would be a sign of hope. I have no hope that Tunisia will change anything until the next conference…. ITU, I think has no interest whatsoever in trying to encourage the development of human rights in that country."

Activists say the vast majority of reports from independent media outlets have been prohibited and, they say, state-controlled television is used as an instrument of propaganda by the government. They point to several alleged cases of people who have had their telephones, faxes and Internet services cut off.