TOPICS: Sharing UN spotlight in Tunisia

At least two opponents of media freedom will share the spotlight at this week’s United Nations meeting dedicated to making the information age accessible to all the people. King Gyanendra is attending the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in the capital of Tunisia at the invitation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The monarch left Kathmandu last Friday just as the Supreme Court ruled on a media ordinance that tightens restrictions on journalists already squeezed by the state following the King’s February 1 takeover. Protests soon followed the court’s decision, including a sit-in by 500 lawyers at the Supreme Court last Sunday. “Who are these people taking away the rights given to us by the parliament?” asked Nepal Bar Association president Shambhu Thapa.

Freedom of expression advocates have denounced the decision to name Tunisia as host of part two of the Summit since 2003, when the inaugural meeting took place in Geneva. Ben Ali’s government has jailed journalists critical of its policies and actively censors the Internet. On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) slammed the detention of journalists Hamadi Jebali and Mohamed Abbou. Jebali was first arrested in 1991 for publishing an article demanding the abolition of military tribunals in his country. On April 28, Abbou was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for writing an Internet article posted on the banned Tunisian Internet site that compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons to conditions in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail.

According to the WSIS Declaration of Principles, the aim of the conference is to help build a world where information will assist everyone to achieve their full potential and improve their quality of life. “We reaffirm our commitment to the principles of freedom of the press and freedom of information, and those of the independence, pluralism and diversity of media, which are essential to the Information Society,” adds the document.

Those words will ring hollow if the monarch shines in the international media spotlight in Tunis, say activists here. “King Gyanendra has shown contempt for the free press. According to Abi Wright, CPJ Asia programme coordinator, “it is ironic that King Gyanendra would attend a conference on the free flow of information overseas, while at home, he secretly enacted one of the most restrictive media laws in the region, and has effectively outlawed any criticism of his government.”

Indian PM Manmohan Singh told King Gyanendra at the recent SAARC summit that he should take concrete steps to restore democracy as early as possible. But the UN says there is room at the WSIS for King Gyanendra. “I think we at the International Telecommunication Union would want to confirm that WSIS is being held in a spirit of promoting access to information to all the world’s people. We would interpret the presence of leading figures as a positive indication of their growing support for this principle,” Sarah Parkes, chief of media relations and public information at the UN agency, said. — IPS