Fear and Loathing in Tunis

November 16, 2005

It seems somehow appropriate that the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is being held in Tunis. What to do with a government widely criticized for its repressive watchfulness in the public sphere? Let them host a mega-conference designed to make progress toward a more equitable, open vision of the web and the new ICT-driven world.

I'm not being sarcastic: It sounded like a good idea to me. Tunisia has relatively high internet usage for Africa (just over 10%). What better way to encourage change in a society than to put them on the world stage? I thought they would get their act together.

But this hasn't happened in Tunisia, and, in, fact, quite the opposite has occurred. Two days ago, before the meeting could really even get underway, journalists and human rights advocates were being beaten at the very doors of the conference, just as they had arrived.

At 09.30 am on Monday, November 14, 2005, at the Place d’Afrique in Tunis, more than 30 plainclothes policemen impatiently awaited international and Tunisian delegates and members of civil society.

Omar Mestiri, Director of the online magazine Kalima and a founder member of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia (Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie – CNLT) was seized as soon as he arrived at the site for the meeting of the coordinating committee of the Citizens’ Summit on the Information Society (CSIS).

The Citizen's Summit is perhaps the best thing going for an otherwise depressing Tunis conference — and, depressingly, Tunis has already acted to block the independent events from ever happening.

When it was decided in Geneva a couple years ago that the meeting would be held in Tunis, they could not have been so optimistic (as I was!) as to think that Tunisia would return the favor by behaving beautifully for the conference — this isn't the Olympics.

Amnesty International is has been calling for Tunis to be held accountable:

"... the Tunisian government’s record on freedom of expression and access to information is a poor one, and those who speak out in favour of reform and greater protection of human rights are subjected to persecution and harassment by the state authorities. Currently, the Tunisian government maintains strict controls on free speech and use of the Internet, refuses to allow the free operation of domestic human rights groups and holds hundreds of political prisoners, including some who have been jailed for the peaceful expression of their beliefs and are considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience."

But this beating of Mestiri at the WSIS is absolutely shameful: The UN needs to be protecting these attendees. I'm worried for all the good folks who are going there, as Ethan Zuckerman says as he blogs his visit there, to visit with friends in spite of sense that it is a repressed, pointless endeavor.

Real discussion of the internet is not, apparently, on the table at WSIS. But meanwhile the blogosphere continues to spin: Andy Carvin is reposting blogs covering the event.

Leadership on the internet is important. WSIS is an essential event. Yes, it may provide opportunity for a host country to clean up their act, but these events are ridiculous. Tunisia is no better for being the host this year, and the world is certainly no better. What a waste.