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Civil society turns up the heat in Tunisia

Tunisian children logging on - but who controls what they can look at? 

(alkhadna.com/Middle East Online)

Non-governmental organisations from Switzerland and around the world will be observing the information summit in Tunis. But who will be observing them?

Concerned by media intimidation by the Tunisian authorities, NGOs have organised a Citizens' Summit on the Information Society (CSIS) to coincide with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

"This is a summit with a difference," declared Yoshio Utsumi, secretary-general of WSIS. "It is a summit that is inclusive and which reflects the changes in the modern world... WSIS is a summit of solutions."

Wolf Ludwig, a spokesman for comunica-ch, a Swiss civil society coalition, had mixed feelings.

"It's nice for Mr Utsumi to still believe in this inclusiveness," he told swissinfo, "but part of the Resumed PrepCom is not inclusive because civil society cannot participate."

Ludwig added that the biggest problem is that most independent Tunisian civil society organisations are not recognised by the Tunisian government, so they can't register for the summit.

"And this for a summit in their own country!" he said. "So it's not we who are violating inclusiveness, it's the Tunisian government."

Citizens' Summit

"Tunisia has committed itself, through a Conference Agreement, to providing accredited journalists and civil society groups access to the summit venue," said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in an open letter to concerned international NGOs.

But recent moves by Tunisian authorities to exclude members of civil society and the private sector from drafting summit documents have dampened hopes that the WSIS would be more innovative than other UN conferences in its approach to enabling NGOs to work closely with governments.

In response to this, a coalition of international NGOs announced that the inaugural Citizens' Summit would be held in Tunis on November 16-18 to coincide with the WSIS.

The CSIS has two objectives: to send a message of 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 citizens' groups and the public.

Special observers

Swiss NGOs have experienced Tunisian intimidation first-hand. During PrepCom-3 in Geneva, comunica-ch held a private meeting with colleagues from the independent Tunisian civil society in a vacant side room.

According to Ludwig, a few minutes into the meeting several people close to the Tunisian authorities demanded the right to participate, which the NGOs denied them by underlining the informal, closed and preparatory character of the meeting.

Shortly afterwards a Tunisian staff member of the WSIS executive secretariat entered the room and claimed: "I am the police of the UN and you have no right to conduct an illegal meeting here!"

"He demanded we leave the room immediately," said Ludwig. "As most of us knew he wasn't part of the UN security forces, we didn't pay too much attention to his interference."

Soon afterwards some genuine UN security guards asked for information about compliance with formal room reservation rules, which the NGOs couldn't provide.

Ludwig said they therefore agreed to leave the room and wasted a lot of time trying to find another one.

"The continuation of our meeting elsewhere was again closely observed from outside by a number of 'special observers' close to the Tunisian government," he said.

Comunica-ch has sent a formal letter of protest to the executive director of the summit secretariat.

UN "mistake"

NGOs are aware that focusing on human rights issues in Tunisia risks shifting the spotlight away from the summit's principal goal: bridging the digital divide.

"The UN made a mistake," said Julien Pain, head of internet freedom at Reporters Without Borders. "If they wanted people to focus on the digital divide, they shouldn't have asked Tunis to host the summit."

"Of course people will talk about freedom of expression because that's the problem in Tunisia."

Few NGOs agree with the UN's endorsement in 2002 of the decision to have the second phase of the WSIS in Tunisia.

"It's totally ridiculous," said Pain. "Everyone knows that Tunisia is one of the most repressive regimes regarding internet freedom. It was a political decision taken by the UN and it's a real shame."

Wolf Ludwig added that at the end of PrepCom-3 the Canadian delegation clearly stated that if the Tunisian government did not give any signs that it was addressing these issues, it risked having a summit on Tunisia and not in Tunisia.

No entry

As for NGO goals in Tunis, Ludwig would be happy with simply getting there.

"One scenario is that we're not even let in," he said. "We're certain they know us by name and the moment we arrive at Tunis airport they'll send us back."

But he added that international mobilisation would lead to a "great satisfaction".

"Before PrepCom-3 I felt that certain sections among the international civil society had already become fatalistic in accepting the situation as it is," he admitted, adding that the reaction to the CSIS has given NGOs new belief.

"Some [NGOs] are even shifting their pre-booked events to the Citizens' Summit," he said.

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

The second WSIS phase is due to be held in the Tunisian capital of Tunis from November 16-18.
In parallel to the governmental summit, some 250 separate roundtables, panels, presentations and media events are planned by civil society organisations, business entities and national delegations.
High-level panels will give heads of state and government the opportunity to engage in public debates with prominent business and civil society leaders.
Founded in 2002, comunica-ch counts around 20 NGOs as members and has a vast network of supporters. It is the only Swiss coalition active in this field.

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In brief

The Citizens' Summit on the Information Society (CSIS) will be held in Tunis on November 16-18 to coincide with WSIS.

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