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French Version

Tunisia - In Tunisia, the sound of enforced silence

The recent assassination of Lebanese journalist and politician Gebran Tueni highlighted how shaky press freedom was in Lebanon. Even after the "Cedar Revolution," forces opposing democratic expression have shown that rights granted on paper don't necessarily exist in reality.

While the international spotlight on Lebanon is good for Lebanese independence, Lebanon is not alone in the battle for free speech.

On matters of press freedom, Tunisia, considered a success story by many in the West, is quickly seeing its positive image destroyed. Fortunately, it was not a bomb that exposed Tunisian oppression to the outside world, but rather the United Nations, during the recent World Summit for Information Society held in Tunisia between November 16 and 18.

Before the summit itself, the UN provoked criticism by accepting that such a summit could be held in a country known to be one of the most repressive when it comes to freedom of speech. It is not new for the UN to publicly display its limitations. When Libya found itself at the head of the UN's Human Rights commission a few years ago everyone laughed, and the world body lost a little more of its already eroded credibility.

I watched the ceremonies of the World Summit on television from my home in Tunis. What an irony that Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin ben Ali, basking in the glow of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's bestowed legitimacy, showed just how much disdain he has for the principle of free speech by using his monopoly over state media to censor a critical speech by Swiss President Samuel Schmid. Under the spotlight and a flow of inquiries regarding Tunisia's supposed free Internet, free press and free political life, the Tunisian regime could only show its dictatorial face.

While Annan toasted Ben Ali, eight prominent Tunisian civil society figures had been undertaking a month-long hunger strike in support of political liberty. Even Al-Jazeera accepted that the truth in Tunisia was not what is seen in five-star hotels and on tourism postcards.

While the Arab League remained silent, international reporters got a taste of what we Tunisians experience every day. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it was Tunisian thugs who beat and stabbed French journalist Christophe Boltanski, a day after he published an article critical of Tunisia's abysmal human rights record; the police did not intervene. Police, however, did show up in force to disrupt a human rights discussion at the German cultural center in Tunis.

In Tunisia, the price for speaking one's mind is harsh. The late blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui spent a year and a half in prison for his Web commentary. The government sentenced teenagers in the southern port city of Zarzis to 19 years' in prison for having clicked on Web sites of terrorist groups. The teenagers did nothing that analysts, journalists or curious persons do not do several times a month in any democratic state.

The Tunisian government regularly blocks access to my own party's Web site and that of other liberal and secular opposition groups. The government has even blocked the sites of legally recognized opposition parties. Ben Ali tells Washington and Brussels that he alone stands in the way of fundamentalist groups, and he adds that Tunisia is a genuine democratic republic evolving at its own standards of evolution. Indeed each country has its specific context and needs its own standards of evolution; but freedom of speech is and will always be the minimal credible standard for any newborn democracy. Unless this freedom is guaranteed, a regime cannot pretend that it is evolving toward democracy.

After the summit, Ben Ali, under international pressure, ordered the president of Tunisia's human rights' committee to listen only to recognized civil society groups and parties wanting to expose their demands to the government. Had there been a real will to bring about a political opening, the president would have proven himself to be more sincere by allowing public debates on national television.

Such debates would allow a variety of political activists to better dialogue between each other and with the government. They would allow Tunisians to feel more confident about their right to criticize the regime or the opposition. The debates would, finally, allow citizens to openly support those members of the political movements with which they identify. Without free media, there can be no civil society.

It is humiliating to be denied freedom of expression in one's own country. It was embarrassing that it needed the public intervention of the Swiss president to defend our cause and help Ben Ali remember that he must respect Tunisia's national and international commitments as a member of the UN. Democracy cannot be a favor offered by a regime under international pressure. Liberty is a state of mind that each one of us, from the grass roots to the pinnacle of power, must practice every day through tolerance and within the framework of an independent legal system.

Instead of sending its experts after a crime is committed, the UN would be better off considering preventive sanctions for those countries whose regimes do not respect the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Neila Charchour Hachicha is the founder of Tunisia's Parti LibŽral MŽditerranŽen (www.plmonline.info). She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Tunis,01 09 2006
Neila Charchour Hachicha
The Daily Star
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