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Tensions persist between Bern and Tunis

Leuenberger speaks to journalists in Tunis (Carol Vann, InfoSud)

Swiss Communications Minister Moritz Leuenberger gives swissinfo his take on the diplomatic crack that threatens to grow between Switzerland and Tunisia.

On Wednesday Swiss President Samuel Schmid's criticism of nations that imprisoned people for their political beliefs was deemed unsuitable for the eyes and ears of Tunisian television viewers.

Schmid made his comments at the opening of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

The swissinfo website appears to have been blocked in Tunisia - except at the WSIS press centre - since Schmid made his remarks.

Tunisia has long been accused of human rights abuses and muzzling free speech while Tunisian President Ben Ali has repeatedly won landslide electoral victories tainted by charges of fraud.

Leuenberger, who came to Tunis for the final two days of the conference, was faced with hostile questions from Tunisian journalists after addressing the summit on Thursday.

Switzerland was criticised for its banking secrecy and for being a rich country with a good conscience.

Local journalists also reproached the Swiss authorities for imprisoning Muslims for using the internet. They were referring to individuals prosecuted in Geneva for using computers at Geneva University to circulate extremist propaganda.

After the news conference, Leuenberger spoke to swissinfo.

swissinfo: It is no longer possible to access swissinfo in Tunisia. As the site is considered the voice of Switzerland abroad, this could be interpreted as an action against Switzerland. What is your reaction?

Moritz Leuenberger: If that turns out to be correct, then it is a violation of freedom of expression. I both deplore and condemn this.

swissinfo: In the past few days, tension has increased between Bern and Tunis. How do you evaluate this diplomatic crisis?

M.L.: The summit was organised by the UN. The first phase took place in Geneva and the second phase here in Tunis. So we always knew that the problem of human rights could become a delicate subject.

But, contrary to other countries which chose not to send high level delegations, Switzerland decided to be well represented at Tunis and to make it a priority to speak out on the subjects dealt with by this summit.

Of course human rights are not the only subject of this summit. Currently, we are only talking about the situation regarding human rights in Tunisia. However, we didn't come to Tunisia to exclusively focus on this problematic issue.

There are many other issues that Switzerland has highlighted in the framework of the WSIS. We also helped to organise this second phase in Tunis to make the summit a success.

But when we touch upon the question of access to internet content and the freedom of the press, then we have to express ourselves clearly.

swissinfo: Are you not worried that this crisis about freedom of expression in Tunisia might overshadow the summit and its themes ?

M.L.: We must not abandon our profound convictions about freedom of expression [just] to avoid a crisis.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand and Thomas Stephens in Tunis

Key facts

The first phase of the WSIS took place in Geneva in 2003.
The three-day second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) ends in Tunis on Friday.
More than 17,500 delegates from 176 states have attended, including 5,600 governmental representatives, 5,600 NGO members, 3,600 people from the private sector and 1,000 journalists.

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In brief

Swiss Communications Minister Moritz Leuenberger has emphasised the universal importance of freedom of expression and respect for human rights.

On Wednesday Swiss President Samuel Schmid's opening speech was censored for saying UN states that restrict civil liberties was "frankly unacceptable".

The swissinfo website appears to have been blocked in Tunisia since Schmid made his remarks.

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