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Last Updated: Monday, 14 November 2005, 09:49 GMT
Tunisia under fire over UN summit
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Tunis

This week, the North African nation of Tunisia hosts a UN summit on the internet. One big item on the agenda will be how to ensure freedom of expression online. But Tunisia's own record of censorship has led some critics to question its suitability to host such an event.

Tunisian President Ben Ali
Ben Ali has been the country's president since 1987
Tunisia has launched a bit of a media campaign ahead of the net summit. It put out a full page advertising supplement last week in the International Herald Tribune.

That supplement hailed the country as a fitting host for the World Summit on the Information Society, highlighting the country's commitment to using information technology as an engine for economic growth and education.

The supplement also noted that it was Tunisia that came up with the idea for such a summit in the first place. Back in 1998, Tunisian officials floated the idea to the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

In part, that is why the ITU chose Tunisia to host the second phase of the Summit. The first phase took place in Geneva in December 2003.

Sending a signal

Tunisia is also a symbolic choice, according to Robert Shaw, who serves as Internet Strategy and Policy Adviser to the ITU.

If you're a blogger in Tunisia, and you want to criticise online, there's no way your website will be accessible in Tunisia
Julien Pain, Reporters Without Borders

"Africa right now represents only about 3% of the world's internet users," he said.

"It's still extremely unrepresented. So having this in a developing economy is very, very important."

Others, however, are making this a summit not so much in Tunisia, as about Tunisia.

"This summit is a masquerade," says Julien Pain, who runs the Internet Freedom Desk at the Paris-based group Reporters without Borders.

"Organising a summit about the internet in a country that is so repressive of internet freedom is ridiculous."

Mr Pain calls the situation for internet users and bloggers in Tunisia "scary". He says many websites are blocked by the Tunisian authorities, and many sources of information are banned.

"If you're a blogger in Tunisia, and you want to criticise online, there's no way your website will be accessible in Tunisia.

"As soon as the censors find your blog, they will ban it, and they will block access to your website. If you keep on criticising the authorities, the authorities will get you, and put you in jail."

This is what happened to internet dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui in 2002. He used his website, called Tunezine, to criticize Tunisia's political system, which has been dominated for half a century by one political party.

The government accused him of "disseminating inaccurate news" and sentenced him to two years in prison.

He served 18 months of that sentence before being released. He later suffered a heart attack and died.

More recently, cyber-journalist Mohammed Abbou was thrown in jail, in part for an online article he wrote comparing the torture of political prisoners in Tunisia to that of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

Tunisian changes

Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based consultant with Human Rights Watch, recently visited Tunisia and met with members of the online community.

Security at the conference centre in Tunis
Security has been stepped up in Tunis ahead of the summit
"One human rights activist told me that if technology is making the world a global village, then Tunisia is a basement cell in that village," said Mr Zarwan.

"Another activist told me that he was astonished that Tunisia was being given the chance to host the summit, and that 'the dictatorship' was being given the chance to present a false face to the world."

The Tunisian government defends its record. It says it only censors online postings that are deemed an incitement to violence, or racial hatred.

And it points out that Tunisia was the first Arab country to guarantee universal human rights in its constitution.

"It is clear that the government is very much on the defensive," says Steven Buckley, chair of the Tunisian Monitoring Group, which is made up of some 15 freedom of expression organizations.

"The government is still in a state of denial. They reject all allegations of violations of human rights, even though these are clearly documented, and supported not just by our organization, but by many governments and by the UN itself.

"One can only hope that holding the summit in Tunisia will lead to some improvement in the situation there, as compared to what it is today."

In a speech last week, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali delivered a speech in which he outlined new legislation to ease restrictions on the press.

President Ben Ali said he wanted to "encourage pluralism in the media landscape, and broaden space for dialogue".

The speech coincided with the 18th anniversary of the president's rise to power.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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