The United Nations was recently subjected to strong criticism by human rights groups due to its choice of Tunisia as a host to the World Summit on the Information Society. The disapproval referred to Tunisia”s poor human rights records and its constant restrictions of public freedoms and freedom of expression. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan unconvincingly responded to the criticism by saying that placing Tunisia under the spotlight, will inevitably force it to review its infamous record.
The contradiction, however, is that Tunisia has not changed its policies of persecution even after being the focus of such an event. It continues with its campaign of harassment against journalists and activists, even in the presence of a number of world leaders and media officials. Before the beginning of the summit, a number of journalists and correspondents were harassed and beaten. Meanwhile, Robert Menard, the chairman of the international network ”Reporters Sans Frontiers” (RSF) was prevented from entering Tunisia and forced to remain on the airplane that was supposed to take him to his destination. Moreover, the summit, in which freedom of expression was supposed to be addressed, was subjected to many encroachments causing some participants to accuse the host government of attempting of hindering the summit. Furthermore, several other problems occurred before and after the summit itself.
The choice alone of Tunisia for a meeting of this nature was puzzling for many; how could a state that significantly limits the freedom of information host a summit about information? Such criticism is justified. The Tunisian government has blocked several websites that are critical of it, and has even detained and jailed some of those who ran the websites. According to an academic study that included two thousand websites, of these, Tunisia has managed to block approximately 10 %, especially those that are openly critical of the government. The increase of internet cafes in Tunis, which holds more than other Arab cities of the region, is odd considering the fact that many websites are banned.
Some people suggest that Tunisia”s decision to invite Israeli Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, to the summit, and permission to visit his hometown in Tunisia, was implemented to alleviate international criticism of the summit”s location with respect to public freedoms.
Tunisia has undoubtedly achieved remarkable economic growth. In addition, it has established remarkable openness in the private and personal status law, unmatched by any other Arab state. However, such achievements remain peripheral and fragile, as they are not associated with the development of freedom of expression.