By Ralf Bendrath and Rik Panganiban
28 November 2005. In December 2003, we put together a listing of the high and low points from the Geneva World Summit on the Information Society, which we called "How Was the Summit?" In that same spirit, we submit to you our very personal take on the best and worst of the Tunis WSIS.
This time around, civil society through their own self-organizing mechanisms selected nearly all of the 35 individuals who spoke at the official WSIS plenaries, roundtables and high level panels.
Ms. Shirin Ebadi
In a very last minute effort, the Human Rights Caucus managed to put together an impressive campaign to get Ms. Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Iranian human rights activist, selected to speak as the civil society speaker at the opening ceremony of the WSIS. As anticipated, she pulled no punches and delivered a very strong statement in support of basic human rights and social justice.
Unlike Geneva, the ITU managed to get fairly stable, robust, and free (as in beer) wireless internet throughout the Kram convention centre. For those laptop owners in need of very fast connections, there were also lots of LAN cable plugs in the civil society offices. A not-so-secret SMTP server even allowed folks to send out mail. And no web filtering was reported on the summit premises.
In Geneva, we had a heck of a time allocating and distributing these "overpasses" so people could attend the opening ceremony and plenaries of the WSIS. This time around, we had our act together with an online reservation system, pretty fair allocations of passes to various caucuses, and possibilities for even newcomers to get into the conference hall. In the end, as expected, barely anyone attended the official proceedings after the opening ceremony.
"The Third Paradise"
This most beautiful side-event took place in an old townhouse in the medina, where the Brazilian government had joined forces with an Italian cultural foundation. They brought together Mediterranean artists, free software and knowledge workers, video documentarists and cultural activists for an amazing program during the whole week. The highlight clearly was Free Software guru Richard Stallmann singing protest songs and Brazilian cultural minister Gilberto Gil playing along on the guitar. Cozy atmosphere, loungy interior and extremely friendly people made this the best evening chill-out place after the political frenzy at the official summit.
Various witnesses reported that outside of the summit area in the Kram Convention Centre, the Tunisian authorities continued to censor online content deemed dangerous to the regime, such as the websites of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Even the Swiss news site swissinfo.ch was blocked because they covered the Swiss President's opening speech at the WSIS that was clearly critical of the Tunisian human rights record. The web was not only filtered in the official summit hotels, but even at the ICT4ALL exhibition right next to the summit.
Swiss-level Prices in Africa
Everything about the WSIS was clearly priced at corporate expense account rates, from the overpriced hotels to the horrible two euro sandwiches in the cafes. We understand that several African and Latin American NGOs were not able to attend due to the high travel, accommodation and cost-of-living expenses.
The meeting rooms and offices at the summit only had paper or cloth walls and no ceiling. This again - like in Geneva - created a constant noise level which made it extremely hard to concentrate on your work or calmly discuss with others during the many interesting side-events.
Or lack thereof. No further comment necessary.
Harassment of the Citizen's Summit
Like at many other UN world conferences, civil society groups had organized several meetings outside of the official summit. The biggest event was supposed to be the "Citizens' Summit on the Information Society", organized together with independent Tunisian NGOs, others were also planned by e.g. the German Heinrich Böll Foundation. The Tunisian authorities repeatedly cancelled room bookings and blocked access to the buildings. Therefore, the Citizens' Summit could not take place, and the German UN Ambassador could not even get into the Goethe Institute - an official subsidiary of the German Foreign Office. The Tunisian secret police mostly showed up in badly-fitting dark suits, refused to give their names or any written documentation, and used as their standard answer "This meeting is illegal. If you want to meet, you can meet at the summit".
Paranoid Security Measures
With the recent Jordanian terrorist attack, it is perhaps understandable that the Tunisian hosts might be worried about a security incident. But the seemingly thousands of security personnel throughout the Kram Centre as well as encircling the area with their automatic weapons and shotguns seemed extremely excessive. Participants reported random bag searches by gruff and non-communicative security personnel. Some participants were even blocked from entering the Kram center in the evenings, though the summit negotiations were still going on at the same time, and could only enter after extended discussions. In the hotels, secret police in plain-clothes were everywhere in the lobbies and hallways, creating an atmosphere of constant surveillance.
Ralf Bendrath is chief editor of http://www.worldsummit2005.org/, Rik Panganiban is among other things known for his blog http://www.rikomatic.com/.