General disappointment in WSIS-host Tunisia

By EDRi · November 21, 2005

As host country of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS),
Tunisia has not lived up to the optimistic expectations of some UN
officials, but in stead exceeded the worst expectations of civil society.
Many individuals searched their souls whether to attend the Summit or not.
But the promise of a Citizens Summit, dedicated to the human rights
demands of civil society and inclusive of the Tunisian people and
organisations purposefully excluded by the Tunisian government, convinced
many of them to come to Tunis and mingle amongst the 23.000 official

In an opinion article titled ‘No place to talk about Internet freedom’ for
the International Herald Tribune, Kamel Labidi, the former director of
Amnesty International-Tunisia, describes Tunisia as “one of the Arabs
world’s most autocratic regimes.” “Not only is the choice of Tunis
insensitive to the many brave Tunisians who have suffered harsh reprisals
from their governments for expressing their views, it also signals that
repressive governments face little consequence when they systematically
curtail basic human rights.” But he also said the activities by the NGOs
to show the unworthyness of the country as a host “sparked hope among
Tunisians yearning for freedom and democracy”.

The Citizens Summit on the Information Society (CSIS) was to be organised
by 19 organisations, made up of both Tunisian and international NGOs. The
organisation was difficult from the start. The CSIS objectives were to
send a strong message of support and solidarity from international civil
society to the local civil society and citizens, and to address the main
issues being debated at the WSIS, from the perspective of citizen groups
and the public. But the Tunisians did all they could to disrupt civil
society meetings. It started at the third Prepcom in Hammameth, where
meetings were disturbed by incredible quantities of loud-mouthed Tunisian
infiltrants, claiming to represent civil society in Tunisia.

In Tunis the reserved rooms for the counter summit, though confirmed and
prepaid, were cancelled at the last minute, because of ‘urgent renovation
works’. And no other hotel or venue could be found that dared to resist
Tunisian government pressure. The obstructions facing the CSIS culminated
on Monday 14 November when civil society organisations were forcefully
prevented from holding a planning meeting at the Goethe Institute downtown
Tunis. Following this incident, the EU group, represented by the British
ambassador to the UN, Nicholas Thorne, issued a demarche (diplomatic
letter of concern) to the Tunisian foreign minister.

In his opening speech, the Swiss president mr. Samuel Schmid used very
harsh words about this climate of repression. “It is not acceptable — and
I say this without beating about the bush — for the United Nations
Organisation to continue to include among its members those States which
imprison citizens for the sole reason that they have criticised their
government or their authorities on the internet or in the press. Any
knowledge society respects the independence of its media as it respects
human rights. I therefore expect that freedom of expression and freedom of
information will constitute central themes over the course of this Summit.
For myself, it goes without question that here in Tunis, within its walls
and without, anyone can discuss quite freely. For us, it is one of the
conditions sine qua non for the success of this international conference.”

Though the Tunisian national television had a live broadcast of the
opening ceremony, halfway during the speech of the Swiss president the
broadcast suddenly turned into a black screen, much to the dismay of the
Swiss delegation. The next speech, by Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel
Peace prize in 2003, explicitly addressed the practice of Tunisia to
create fake NGOs to frustrate the NGO decision making process. She also
addressed the problem of censorship and the possibility that internet
providers in the Western world could be forced for political or economical
reasons to deprive entire parts of the world of their internet access. She
called on the plenary to institute a forum under UN supervision to watch
over internet filtering and equal access rights.

After the closing ceremony on 18 November, the US delegation used very
harsh words in a press release. “We are therefore obliged to express our
disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of
this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of
expression and assembly in Tunisia.”

Opening speech Swiss president, mr. Samuel Schmid (16.11.2005)

Opening speech Ms. Shirin EBADI (in French, 16.11.2005)

EU attacks police tactics at Tunis internet conference (16.11.2005),,1643550,00.html

Kamel Labidi, ‘No place to talk about Internet freedom’ (16.11.2005)

U.S. Delegation Urges Progress in Tunisian Reform, Human Rights (19.11.2005)