27 April 2005. The WSIS summit meeting in Tunis is only half a year away, and the planning for this major event is becoming more concrete. Though the deadline for registering official side-events is already in three days, many civil society groups are struggling to decide how and if they can and will participate. The Civil Society Bureau in the meantime has submitted an official document on how the summit should be organized and what will and will not be acceptable.
Side events: Early deadline as a filter?
Contrary to the first WSIS summit in Geneva in 2003, the deadline for registering side-events is an unusual long time before the summit takes place. This may be due to the fact that the Tunisian organizers are not as experienced with huge international conferences as the Swiss, especially as the U.N. city of Geneva. It also may be an indication that there will be more filtering, in order to keep the more critical voices out. But maybe it is only because the company that is organizing the "ICT4All" exhibition alongside with the summit, Otto Frey AG, is from Switzerland and therefore has more coordination efforts to handle.
The early deadline - whatever the reasons may be - is now functioning as a de facto filter for participation of many accredited civil society organizations. At this stage, months before PrepCom3, the summit outcomes are far from clear. Therefore, many groups still have a hard time deciding if they want to participate actively in the official summit events, or if they prefer to be part of an independent NGO forum outside of the summit. The deadline had originally even been set to the 1st of April, and only got pushed back one month because the Civil Society Bureau and others asked for a postponement. Civil society groups originally had asked for a deadline not earlier than the end of May.
Preparations for the summit
The general concerns civil society groups involved in the WSIS have with the summit plans have been collected in a document at PrepCom2 that was refined and expanded later. It has been officially submitted to the Intergovernmental Bureau by the Civil Society Bureau. This document builds on the Geneva summit. There, civil society groups and other stakeholders for the first time had a very equal standing, as they could organize their own events during the summit and on the same venue, their speakers were invited to roundtables with heads of state, and so on.
But a number of experiences also made clear that there is a lot of room for improvement. At the Geneva summit, the privacy of participants was endangered by the use of radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs) in the badges, a demonstration in front of the WIPO building was stopped by the police; publications were confiscated by the uniformed entrance guards, there was a lack of real Internet connectivity, and so on. Worst of all, the speakers selection by civil society for the summit opening ceremony was not respected, with the result that "the person officially speaking as civil society at the ceremony was not speaking on behalf of it." Civil society, according to the Bureau to Bureau document, sees this "as a severe breach of the multi-stakeholder approach".
The document also calls for a better use of summit travel funds than in Geneva, a clear policy of not censoring civil society documents, meetings and demonstrations, and a general multi-stakeholder approach for the summit side events and their format.
This is not just begging for being included. Civil society groups have so much expertise in the field of information and communication policy, in privacy and security, in constructive and productive events formats and in using a free, unfiltered Internet for democratic purposes, it would be foolish of the summit organizers not to listen more closely to their suggestions.
Marketing for Tunisia?
After all, the summit host country has already become under heavy criticism from human rights groups. The regime of Tunisian president Ben Ali is known for torture, censorship, internet filtering, repression of the free press, and overall a lack of democratic elections. It is trying to use the summit to present itself as a technologically advanced country. Recently, Ben Ali even announced internet access in trains, a feature missing in most industrialized countries, and the government is closely aligning with the West in the so-called "fight against terrorism". It is trying to use the summit as another public relations measure for presenting itself as a modern, secular type of government in the Arab region.
Tunisian human rights groups, on the other side, have so far successfully used the summit for building networks and coalitions with groups from all over the world. Some of them have even been allowed WSIS accreditation by their government, while others are still under police pressure and have no chance of getting a legal status. Progressive civil society groups from Western countries had their experiences with the Tunisia human rights report of the International Free Expression Exchange (IFEX) being censored during PrepCom2 in Geneva.
Counter Summit discussed
A number of groups, mainly from the independent media centres (Indymedia), have been discussing a counter or alternative summit. Such a meeting could not only be used for putting the spotlight on the human rights situation in Tunisia, but also to bring more critical and independent NGOs together to discuss the converging issues that have emerged during the WSIS preparations. These are communication rights, public domain knowledge concepts like Free Software, privacy, a critical assessment of information age working conditions, and a number of other issues.
Ironically, the early deadline for registering official summit events might help in bringing civil society groups closer towards these developments. Even the more pragmatic groups have been asking themselves if they want to present their issues, discussions and projects to the summit audience (read: the global multi-stakeholder jet-set) or to the Tunisian public and the independent local NGOs. A good mix of both, with communication channels back and forth would probably be the best.