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Freedom of expression groups urge authorities to release Mohammed Abbou and all other prisoners of opinion

(IFEX-TMG) - The following is a 1 March 2006 joint declaration by members of the IFEX-TMG:

Freedom of expression groups urge Tunisia to release Mohammed Abbou and all other remaining prisoners of opinion

On the first anniversary of the jailing of Tunisian internet writer, lawyer and human rights activist Mohammed Abbou, international freedom of expression groups welcomed the recent release of many Tunisian prisoners of opinion including journalist Hamadi Jebali, imprisoned for more than 15 years, and the youth of Zarzis, whose release was the focus of an international campaign, but expressed dismay at the continued incarceration of Abbou and the escalation of other free speech violations.

Abbou was jailed on 1 March 2005 and subsequently prosecuted at an unfair trial, on a highly questionable charge of "assault", for publishing information that "would disturb public order" and for "insulting the judiciary". His is just one of a series of cases of free speech rights abuse documented by International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) member groups, including 14 members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group.

Freedom of assembly is severely restricted. Political parties, human rights groups and civil society activists have been physically prevented by police from holding peaceful gatherings on private premises. Meetings of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedom (FDLT), National Council Freedoms in Tunisia (CNLT) and meetings of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) have all been banned.

Controls on phones, faxes and the internet are still in place, three months on from the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005. The security services summoned several human rights defenders in February, including members of the editorial board of the banned newspaper Kalima, searched them and confiscated copies of the newspaper in their possession.

Tunisian authorities have blocked publication of the weeklies al Maoukif, published by the opposition Democratic Progressive party, and Akhbar al Joumhouria. Foreign papers have faced bans on distribution including the French Paris daily Le Monde and the magazine al Maraa al Youm published in Dubai.

Despite the repeal of the dépôt legal system, which required copies of Tunisian periodicals to be sent to officials, the system still applies to the foreign press. It allows the authorities to silence media that criticise the government or raise taboo subjects.

We urge the Tunisian government:

- To free Mohammed Abbou and all remaining prisoners of opinion.
- To stop the censorship of publications in Tunisia, and the use of the dépôt legal system to stop the distribution of foreign media.
- To lift the legal requirement that new periodicals must be officially registered prior to publication.
- To allow independent broadcasters to function.
- To allow freedom of assembly for all independent NGOs and parties.
- To end the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders.

Note to editors:

The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is a coalition of 14 organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 14 organisations are all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of 72 national, regional and international organizations committed to defending the right to freedom of expression.

Members of the TMG are:

ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), The Netherlands
International Publishers' Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK