Dispatch from Tunis: The Civil Society Summit That Wasn’t
Today as a global summit on the Internet got underway, the Tunisian government did all it could to smother a local summit on the same topic. One might think that a world conference on improving global Internet access represents a prime chance for the government to reverse its reputation for intolerance of dissent, but the day’s events proved it to be an opportunity missed.
The streets and landmark buildings of downtown Tunis are festooned with red national flags and portraits of President Ben Ali, while plainclothes police patrol in large numbers outside almost every major hotel and at known gathering points of Tunisia’s small human rights community. Meanwhile, some 10 kilometers away in the northern suburb of Kram, dignitaries, diplomats and members of accredited civil society and press organizations gathered to attend preliminary parallel sessions of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), whose official sessions open on November 16. But much of the Tunisian human rights community was barred from the global conference and thwarted in attempts to meet independently.
The government of Tunisia tolerates little dissent. Human rights organizations operate under heavy restrictions, and many are denied legal recognition by the authorities. Peaceful meetings of human rights activists are often blocked by plainclothes police who forcibly disperse would-be participants.
Many Tunisian human rights organizations that might have participated in WSIS could not for lack of formal legal status in Tunisia. For this reason, they together with international human rights organizations in town for the WSIS prepared to hold a parallel event in Tunis called the Citizen’s Summit to debate the same issues that would be discussed at the WSIS conference events. To that end, they rented a venue at the Hotel Oriental Palace, a major hotel in Tunis, and created a website with a schedule for the alternate summit.
On November 10, the hotel notified organizers of the Citizen’s Summit that the hall was no longer available, citing the sudden need for repair work at that time. The abrupt unavailability of a venue for gatherings by unauthorized groups has been part of a pattern of harassment, as has forcible disruption of “unauthorized” assemblies by plainclothes police.
This morning at roughly 9 a.m., representatives of the organizations planning the Citizen’s Summit planned to meet at the Goethe Institute, a German cultural institute, in downtown Tunis, but were prevented from entering by several dozen plainclothes police. The police, who refused to identify themselves or give any explanation of their actions, manhandled Tunisian and foreign activists, knocking down several individuals as they pushed them along the streets. The police also confiscated the camera from a Belgian television cameraman who came to tape the scene, returning it without its cartridge, and attempted to confiscate the camera from a Swiss photojournalist, telling him it was forbidden to take pictures.
Among those who were dispersed by the authorities were Souhayr Belhassen, vice-president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Sihem Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri, and Om Zied of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia (an unauthorized organization), Mahmoud Dhaouadi, a member of the Union of Tunisian Journalists, (an unauthorized organization), and representatives of Human Rights Watch (New York); the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH, Paris), Front Line (Dublin), the World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters (Montreal), the Association for Progressive Communication (Johannesburg), and the Human Rights Caucus of WSIS. Eventually, some of these delegates were able to meet when a high-level German diplomat attending WSIS and a Swiss diplomat personally hosted them at a nearby café. However, they had to leave when the café owner informed them that police surrounding the establishment said he would have to close it if they remained on the premises.
A second event of the Citizen’s Summit scheduled for the afternoon was also thwarted by Tunisian authorities. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) had organized a meeting under the auspices of the Citizens Summit, on the theme of woman in the information society. They had rented the Espace Téatro in the Hotel Mechtel. Three days ago, that hotel official contacted the ATFD and informed it that the hall was no longer available. The ATFD decided to hold the event instead at its offices in downtown Tunis, at 5:00 pm. At that time, persons approaching the office to attend were confronted by plainclothes police, who informed them that the meeting was forbidden, and that they had orders to deny access to the site. The meeting could not take place.
At approximately 10 p.m., Omar Mestiri, of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia, attempted to meet a Lebanese human rights activist visiting Tunis for WSIS at a local hotel. Police at the entrance prevented Mestiri from entering the building. After a brief confrontation, Mestiri was detained for approximately 90 minutes at a police station before being allowed to leave.
A select few
The limited participation of Tunisian civil society in the WSIS conference is reflected in the venue of the conference, in an exposition park at a distance from the city center, reached via a heavily guarded road. Only delegates with conference badges can even approach the site.
At a panel in the WSIS compound organized by Human Rights Watch today on Internet censorship in the Middle East, the question-and-answer period was dominated by individuals representing government-approved Tunisian organizations, who praised the government and contested the characterization of Tunisia as a country that practiced censorship and surveillance. Human Rights Watch has documented Tunisia’s record with regard to development and restriction of the Internet in a report to be released November 15. The few truly independent Tunisian human rights organizations that are accredited to the WSIS have stayed away, in solidarity with those that are not accredited to attend. No representative of Tunisian organizations that might have been able to share information about Internet surveillance or censorship was present at the panel.
Throughout the day, access to the Web site of the Citizen’s Summit, www.citizens-summit.org, was intermittently unavailable in Tunisia. Tunisian human rights activists have also reported difficulty accessing their usual email services.