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Tunisian authorities scuffle with foreign media

Security inside the WSIS congress centre is tight but outside even foreign media are not safe

(Keystone)

The Swiss delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has condemned the local intimidation of international civil society.

On the eve of the summit in Tunis, such coercion has increased but the Swiss said they hoped that the proceedings, which open on Wednesday, would not be a step backwards.

"Welcome to the country of tolerance, solidarity, openness and dialogue", proclaimed the banner fluttering between two palm trees just outside the airport.

On Friday Christophe Boltanski, from the French newspaper Libération, was stabbed and badly beaten by four unidentified assailants near his hotel in an area of Tunis where there are always large numbers of police.

Libération had that morning run a story by Boltanski entitled "Demonstrators beaten by police in Tunis". The article described the beating of human rights activists who had tried to stage a demonstration in solidarity with seven leading Tunisian opposition figures who have been on a hunger strike since October 18.

On Monday morning, at least 50 Tunisian police blocked the local branch of the Goethe-Institut, Germany's cultural institution in many countries, just as a preparatory meeting for the Citizens' Summit (CSIS) was set to take place. Several participants were insulted, beaten and prevented from entering the building.

Swiss journalist Roman Berger, who was outside the institute when the police descended, told swissinfo how he struggled with police who tried to take his camera.

Berger was trying to take a photo of the police scuffling with a Belgian film crew.

Cancellation

Marc Furrer, operational head of the Swiss delegation at the WSIS, told swissinfo he had protested to the Tunisian authorities about the recent violations but admitted he wasn't surprised.

"What can you do?" he said. "I am a lawyer and we clearly have a different concept of what is legal and what isn't."

On Monday night a CSIS coordinating group condemned the ongoing human rights violations in Tunisia and announced the cancellation of several side events at the WSIS.

In addition, on Tuesday many civil society organisations cancelled their panels at the WSIS in solidarity with Tunisian civil society.
It remains unclear whether more or all civil society events will be called off.

The CSIS faced its first difficulties last week when the venue it booked for its events, which had been paid for, was cancelled owing to "unforeseeable works" in one of the hotel's rooms.

Blocking web access

But even journalists who have not been assaulted have grounds to complain.

Many people have found the internet filtered in their hotels and ports to external servers were blocked, preventing the sending of emails.

The website of the CSIS website has been blocked in Tunisia since Monday – it is only accessible from the WSIS media centre.

The websites of Reporters without Borders and other WSIS-related sites such as www.wsisblogs.org have also been inaccessible.

Regarding long-term expectations of the WSIS, Furrer hoped there would not be any regression on the principles defended in Geneva in 2003 – "and in any case we will not accept any regression".

Agreement

In a positive development, the Swiss delegation welcomed on Tuesday night the conclusion of three days of intense negotiations at the so-called Resumed PrepCom.

These discussions appear to have led to important steps towards agreement on, among other things, the hot topic of internet governance.

While governments are still haggling over who gets political control of the technical core of the internet, there is consensus on the establishment of an "Internet Governance Forum".

The agreement taken last night called for the UN secretary-general to come up with a proposal for the structure and working procedures of the forum next year.

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens in Tunis

Key facts

The first phase of the WSIS took place in Geneva in 2003.
The second part is now taking place in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, from November 16-18, 2005.
The Tunis summit will be attended by 175 countries and 23,000 delegates from governments, international organisations, civil society and the private sector have registered with the organisers.
Some 50 heads of state are also expected to attend.
Preparatory talks for the summit ended on Tuesday night, with an agreement on internet governance, follow-up procedures after the Tunis meeting, financial mechanisms and the final political declaration.

end of infobox

In brief

Incidents involving foreign media in Tunis include:

November 11 - the French journalist Christophe Boltanski is beaten and stabbed by four unknown assailants in the embassy quarter of Tunis.

November 14 - three Swiss and Belgian journalists are attacked by Tunisian police in front of the Tunis branch of the Goethe-Institut.

November 15 - a team from the French television company TV5 leaves Tunisia after problems during shooting.

end of infobox


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