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Mugabe attacks 'Western media' at Geneva summit

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe arrives in Geneva on Tuesday.
Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, upon his arrival to Geneva Airport, Tuesday.

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GENEVA, Switzerland (Reuters) -- Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe launched a virulent attack on Western media Wednesday at a world summit on making better use of information technology such as the Internet to help poorer nations.

In his first foreign excursion since quitting the 54-nation Commonwealth, Mugabe railed against new technologies, saying they were used for espionage and to weaken the Third World in the face of "a dangerous imperial world order led by warrior states and kingdoms."

"Beneath the rhetoric of free press and transparency is the iniquity of hegemony. The quest for an information society should not be at the expense of building a sovereign national society," he said in a scathing address.

Mugabe, who shut Zimbabwe's only major independent newspaper in September, withdrew from the Commonwealth during the weekend after the group of mostly former British colonies renewed a suspension imposed over Zimbabwe's human rights record.

Other developing country leaders at the summit took the opportunity to urge rich states to do more to help them boost the use of technologies such as the Worldwide Web and mobile phones as a springboard to economic growth.

"From trade to telemedicine, from education to environmental protection, we have in our hands, on our desktops and in the skies above, the ability to improve standards of living for millions upon millions of people," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the opening ceremony.

Roughly 90 percent of the world population has no access to the Internet, depriving them of a 21st century resource and spurring a "digital divide" between rich and poor.

Digital Solidarity Fund

Poorer countries, particularly from Africa, had been pressing for the launch of a "Digital Solidarity Fund" to help finance the infrastructure they say is needed to close the gap.

But the idea was opposed by richer countries and the summit declaration -- to be approved formally at the close Friday -- merely commits states to concluding a study on the issue before a second summit due to be held in Tunis in 2005.

Summit topics ranged from how to battle spam to whether administration of the Worldwide Web should be put under international control.

The latter idea, backed by Brazil and other developing countries but also opposed by the richer states, was also effectively put on hold after negotiators agreed to set up a committee to review Internet management.

The three-day meeting, sponsored by the United Nations, has drawn officials from 175 countries, but few of the 60 heads of state or government attending come from Europe or North America.

The role of the Internet in distributing news and views has focused attention on press freedom and the fact that many of the governments present, including Zimbabwe's, have been accused of hobbling the media and restricting access to the Web.

Activists are particularly incensed that the second phase of the summit in 2005 is due to be held in Tunisia, whose government is regularly accused of repressing press freedom.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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