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Media freedom issue blows up in Tunis

Swiss delegates hounded by Tunisian media

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The fall-out from pointedly critical remarks made at the opening ceremony of the World Summit in Tunis by Swiss prime minister Samuel Schmid continues.

Following Swiss criticism that the host government censored the speech when it was relayed on Tunisian television to remove remarks critical of press freedom in Tunisia, Tunisia has responded by firing that very press freedom back at the Swiss minister of communications.

Mr Moritz Leuenberger has spent most of the day being hounded by the Tunisian media decrying the Swiss prime minister's statement.

Mr Schmid stunned delegates to the Summit when he said it was not acceptable for the UN to "continue to include among its members those states which imprison citizens for the sole reason that they have criticised their government or their authorities on the internet or in the press."

He then mentioned Tunisia in particular: "For myself, it goes without question that here in Tunis, within its walls and without, anyone can discuss quite freely. For us, it is one of the conditions sine qua non for the success of this international conference."

Mr Leuenberger has borne the brunt of Tunisian irritation, getting into heated arguments in a number of press conference today. At one this afternoon, the editor of the Tunisian national newspaper, as well as another three Tunisian journalists took over the conference demanding to know about Swiss banking laws, accusing the Swiss of lecturing other nations, setting hypocritical standards and so on.

One Tunisian journalist, who claimed to be a CNN stringer, insisted the minister explain why two Arabs had been arrested in Geneva for allegedly looking at fundamentalist Islamic websites. The minister said he hadn't heard of the story. Nor had anyone else in the room.

To make matters once, the main Swiss news site covering the conference - Swissinfo - has been added to the official Tunisian blocking list and cannot be picked up in Tunisia outside the Kram centre where an unfiltered pipe to the Internet has been written into the host country agreement with the United Nations.

Things got even more heated when Mr Leuenberger then tried to enter the main press area to do an interview. He was chased by a Tunisian camera crew, and a series of Tunisian reporters. At one point he actually started running.

What followed was an impromtu press conference with Mr Leuenberger pressed against a raised stage answering dozens of questions alternatively in French, German and English. He refused to back down, saying that press freedom remained a fundamental issue; and that while he knew it would be a delicate matter, the Swiss government had decided that rather than stay away (as every other major head of state from Western countries has done), to come to Tunisia and talk about it.

Even so, he said, the Tunisian response had been "rather harsh". He also revealed that he had received an official complaint from the Tunisian government over an interview he had done on the issue with Swiss national television.

That complaint means Tunisia and Switzerland are one-all after an official complaint by the Swiss minister to the Tunisian foreign ministry two days ago over police restrictions at a meeting of human rights organisations in downtown Tunis.

Never a dull moment in Tunis. ®

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