More Trouble for Free Press/Internet Advocates

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Free-press organizations and media industry groups were not very optimistic about next November’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as they arrived for its second big preparatory meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 17.

They left eight days later feeling downright depressed.

Once again, the media industry was shut out of membership on the Working Group on Internet Governance, so if — all right, when — the United Nations-backed WSIS starts fiddling around with how the Net should be regulated, media businesses and journalists will be forced to look on helplessly.

And again in Geneva, the U.N. showed its usual spinelessness about human rights and press freedom in member nations when the WSIS powers-that-be refused to allow the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to distribute among delegates its blistering report on the state of free expression and human rights in the WSIS host nation of Tunisia.

The report was a serious indictment of Tunisia by serious groups, including the World Association of Newspapers, the International Publishers Association, and the World Press Freedom Committee.

“We believe an open debate on the issue [of Tunisia’s human rights record] is essential to the success of the World Summit,” said Luckson Chipare, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which helped prepare the report. “It is ridiculous that a preparatory meeting for the [WSIS] should not be able to freely access information on the conditions in which the next phase of the World Summit will take place.”

There’s always been something unseemly about the U.N.’s choice of Tunisia as the venue for a summit on the Web, which has empowered oppressed citizens around the world — even as it frightens their authoritarian rulers.

Certainly Tunisia President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali — who last year won re-election with what the government said was 95% of the vote — qualifies as that kind of strongman, and a foe of free Internet expression.

The IFEX report notes that seven “cyber-dissidents” known as the Youth of Zarzis are serving prison sentences after blatantly unfair trials that offered no valid evidence of their supposed “terrorist” intentions. Zouhair Yahyaouhi was arrested and tortured by state police in 2002 because his news Web site TUNeZINE made fun of President Ben Ali.

Tunisia blocks Web sites and routinely stations police at Internet cafes, IFEX reports.

But Ben Ali does not confine his repression just to the electronic media. IFEX reports that Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr, is among “hundreds of prisoners … held for their religious and political beliefs … who never advocated or used violence.” Newspapers are censored, and books are banned, just like an old-school dictatorship.

Hosting the WSIS allows Tunisia to proclaim itself a worthy example of how expression should be regulated by government. As the Geneva meeting — which the U.N., with its love of acronyms that sound as if they were coined in the Brezhnev era of the Soviet Union, dubbed PrepCom-2 — Ben Ali crowed that hosting the WSIS is “an event of crucial importance that confirms Tunisia?s influence and the respect and support with which its initiatives are met on the international scene.”

It’s easy to dismiss these international meetings with their dense and empty proclamations as just more U.N. jaw-jaw. There are, however, real consequences to these resolutions for real journalists trying to tell the truth in places governed by those who love their own lies. Authoritarian nations use the gloss of these lovely sounding but poisonous catchphrases to justify themselves to the world as they shut down newspapers, lock up reporters, and hunt down bloggers.

No one knows that better than Tunisians themselves. Meeting in Tunisia is “like holding an environmental summit in a nuclear power plant,” Suhayr Balhassan, vice president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, told Reuters in Geneva.

In this context, Ben Ali’s comment should be seen not as delusional — but as the very canny words of a dedicated enemy of the press and free expression generally.

Some good could come of the summit. Even though free-press NGOs, including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, have been forced to the sidelines, their ideas are resonating with many WSIS participants. That group argues that any filtering of online content, whether by government or private industry, is unacceptable, and violates the principles of the free flow of information. The U.S. government, to its credit, insists that the Internet must be allowed to operate under the same free press and free speech principles as any printed media.

But those ideas may also prove a hard sell — especially when Tunisia gets home-field advantage. Even at Geneva, according to press reports, the Tunisian delegation of supposed media professionals interrupted the media caucus repeatedly to shout down NGOs who were documenting the nation’s free-press and human-rights abuses.

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