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JOURNALISTS PREVENTED FROM ATTENDING WAN ARAB FREE PRESS FORUM; EGYPTIAN EDITOR RECEIVES GEBRAN TUENI AWARD

IFEX-TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera is flanked by Naziha Rjiba (left) and Sihem Bensedrine (right) of Radio Kalima and OLPEC at WAN-IFRA's Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut.
IFEX-TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera is flanked by Naziha Rjiba (left) and Sihem Bensedrine (right) of Radio Kalima and OLPEC at WAN-IFRA's Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut.

Kristina Stockwood/IFEX

Authorities in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia prevented four Arab journalists and human rights activists from attending the Arab Free Press Forum, an annual gathering in Beirut, Lebanon organised by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and "An-Nahar" newspaper. The forum, held on 12 and 13 December, examined how independent media can be effective despite widespread repression in the region.

WAN, and the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), which held a special event during the forum, condemned the travel restrictions.

"We can at least thank the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression, as we open this forum," said Timothy Balding, WAN CEO.

Among those prohibited from traveling were Tunisians Lofti Hidouri and Mohamed Abbou, who were scheduled to participate in the TMG event. Airport police in Tunisia on 10 December prevented journalist Hidouri and human rights lawyer and writer Abbou from boarding the plane to Beirut.

Hidouri was detained overnight as a result of a small fine he received two years ago, which the authorities claim he had not paid. He was released the next day after Abbou went to court on his behalf with evidence that he had paid the fine, reports the Observatory for Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC), IFEX's member in Tunisia. It was the fifth time Abbou was prevented from travelling since his release from prison in July 2007.

Speaking at the TMG event, Naziha Rjiba and Sihem Bensedrine of "Kalima" online magazine and OLPEC said the jailing of Hidouri perfectly illustrates the repression of independent journalists and rights activists in Tunisia. Rjiba said of Hidouri, who was travelling with her, "He was right next to me. I looked left, I looked right, and he vanished. It was like the magician David Copperfield. All that was left of him was his suitcase."

Bensedrine read a poetic speech by Abbou, in which he said, "I take this opportunity to say to all who contributed to defending and supporting me when I was imprisoned under the tyranny of dictatorship that their effort did not go in vain, and without their support, my imprisonment would have been much harder. Without this solidarity, those who threatened my family would have carried out their threats."

Representatives of the Tunisian government in attendance failed in their attempts to disrupt the event, proving again the lengths the authorities will go to in their efforts to silence free voices. TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera noted the strength of the TMG comes from its composition: there is strong regional representation among the 18 members. Half of the TMG members were in attendance in Beirut.

Video of the TMG event and Abbou's speech are online here.

Another recently released prisoner of conscience, Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, former editor-in-chief of "Al-Shoura" in Yemen, was allowed to travel despite a previous ban. Speaking at the forum, he said, "The lack of press freedom in the Arab world is like a disease," and he fears it will infect even those countries where the press is relatively free.

"There are a lot of Arab states that are talking about reform and democracy, but they remain in bad shape. The reports of the international organisations show that the democracy claims are false," he added.

Al-Khaiwani, the father of five children, told the IFEX Clearing House that he and his family are in danger if he picks up his pen again, and he appealed for continued international support.

The forum closed with the presentation to Ibrahim Issa, editor-in-chief of Egypt's "Al-Dustour" newspaper, with the 2008 Gebran Tueni Award, the annual WAN prize that honours an editor or publisher in the Arab region.

The prize is made in memory of Gebran Tueni, the Lebanese publisher and WAN board member who was killed by a car bomb in Beirut on 12 December 2005. It was presented by WAN in recognition of "Issa's commitment to freedom of the press, his courage, leadership, ambition and high managerial and professional standards."

In his acceptance remarks, Issa called on journalists in the Arab world to band together to fight restrictions and to oppose the fight against press freedom, what he called "the only war Arab rulers have ever agreed upon."

Read Issa's full speech at: http://tinyurl.com/54nnjl and see more news from the Arab Free Press Forum at: http://tinyurl.com/42xlaq

(Photo: Egyptian editor Ibrahim Issa, third from left, receives WAN's Gebran Tueni award for his commitment to press freedom. Photo courtesy of "The Daily Star")

(17 December 2008)

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