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Overnight the international press publicized the crude efforts of the Tunisian government to thwart Tunisian and international civil society organizations’ plans to hold an alternate meeting to discuss Internet issues in Tunisia alongside the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The international and local reaction continued today, as diplomats fumed, some civil society organizations cancelled their events at the U.N. conference, and Human Rights Watch held two press conferences, one for journalists with WSIS badges, the other for Tunisian and international journalists and advocates who did not attend WSIS.

Early in the day, international NGOs that had scheduled official WSIS events but also supported the alternative Citizens Summit began to announce the cancellation of their official events at WSIS. Rather than present their prepared panels on freedom of expression or gender equity, some accredited NGOs chose instead to focus attention on the thuggish treatment by Tunisian police to advocates, journalists and diplomats who tried to meet to plan the Citizens Summit at various locations in Tunis. At a press conference in the WSIS center to announce this protest, Mouldi Mbarek, the editor of La Presse, a pro-government French language daily in Tunisia, broke into a prolonged harangue on why these groups didn’t focus their energy on immigration discrimination in France, taking up the last minutes until the next event.

Human Rights Watch also released a report on Internet access and freedom in the Middle East at a WSIS press conference in an overheated room equipped with video screens, translators, and badged journalists. We fielded somewhat oddball questions such as whether the U.S. Commerce Department was encouraging human rights groups to criticize the situation in Tunisia for its own purposes (well, they certainly haven’t called us); why did HRW focus on the plight of a few imprisoned Tunisians instead of the abuses in Abu Ghraib (we have intensively, please see our Web site), should the press boycott the conference because of the crackdown on Tunisian activists (no, it should publicize their plight).

Show of force
The atmosphere couldn’t have been more different some two hours later, when at 7:00 p.m. we hosted a dozen Tunisian journalists and civil society figures as well as international NGO representatives and WSIS participants at an impromptu press conference in our modest downtown hotel. To its credit, the hotel management, which easily could have asked us to go elsewhere given the intimidation that other hotels have faced, allowed us to crowd the narrow lobby, settling some 20 people around the glum young men who occupied the sofa, monitoring the guests and the proceedings.

Outside, the street scene was ominous. As we approached, we immediately saw two blue police vans parked a short distance from the hotel, with large clumps of quiet, intimidating men in plainclothes dispersed along both sides of the street on each side of the hotel. The street, Rue Naplouse, is not a very interesting or populated one, featuring a small café (where no men stood), a few dark office buildings, and a couple of vacant lots. We suspected we were the attraction, especially as the two dozen men would turn their heads to us whenever our Tunisian guests or we approached or left the hotel.

Inside, however, the atmosphere was lively. This audience had many pertinent and urgent questions for us: How can you tell when the government intercepts your email (it’s hard)? Did we rank countries based on how many Web sites they block (no)? Who else but the government could send viruses from the addresses of known human rights activists to all their contacts (the virus itself)? And most pertinent, if you see the level of intimidation that is occurring even now, during an international summit, what will happen to us when the summit is over? Representatives of HRW, Amnesty International, the International Publishers’ Association and PEN all expressed their determination to keep monitoring the situation long-term.

As our Tunisian colleagues left for dinner, walking by the gauntlet of intimidating loitering plainclothes men, we followed at a discrete distance. That morning, one of them, Omar Mestiri of the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (which the government has refused to recognize), had his apartment sealed off from visitors by a police cordon. (When a Human Rights Watch researcher approached the building around 11 a.m., plainclothes policemen blocked the door to the building and ordered him to leave the street.) But Omar and his colleagues walked lightly as they left the evening gathering, passing the hulking figures in the shadows, and eventually disappeared from our sight. Suddenly, the loitering crowd dispersed, some on motorcycles, some on foot—all, apparently, in the direction of our friends. When we returned to the hotel some 10 minutes later, the police vans had decamped, the two dozen men vanished, and the street had returned to its usual quiet state, with just a few lingering men in the shadows.

Today we heard that the Swiss head of delegation to the WSIS confronted his Tunisian counterpart with his distress at yesterday’s confrontation between the police and the NGO crowd, which happened to include a Swiss diplomat. He was told it was all a lie, at which he took great offense. There is still hope that the Tunisian government will change its course and let the Citizen’s Summit proceed. But even if it does, our friend’s question lingers: what happens after the summits are over?

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