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World Summit blog: internet, freedom of speech and the UN

Asking the questions, giving the answers

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WSIS Tunis The most controversial aspect of this whole world summit hasn't been the ensuing fight of who should run the internet but where it is being hosted: Tunisia.

Stories about the clampdown on freedom of speech by the government in Tunisia have been the main focus of most stories up to now. It is nowhere near as bad as, say, China but many countries have questioned why a summit about the Information Society (essentially, the Internet) should be based somewhere that denies the most inspiring and revolutionary aspect of this new medium - ready access to enormous, global amounts of information.

The criticism has been heavy and sustained. It even led to a formal question at the end of the Geneva PrepCom3 conference by Western countries over whether Tunisia would guarantee freedom of speech during the conference.

The Tunisian ambassador was embarassed and incensed. He testily told the gathered governments, organisations and media that Tunisia had stated time and again that usual UN rules would apply at the conference - which meant complete freedom of representation.

But despite these words, no heads of governments from Western "liberal" countries are attending. And the UN has had problems getting big names to take part because they don't want to provide the Tunisian government with legitimacy.

If this wasn't indication enough, the United Nations has actually produced an FAQ document covering "the privileges and immunities granted to participants" of the Summit.

There are 13 questions and the first is: "Is there any category of Summit participants who do not enjoy privileges and immunities?" I have to confess that the very fact that the UN felt the need to produce such a document caused me to print out the French version which I keep close to hand in case I end up on the wrong side of one of the thousands of security services men or policeman patrolling night and day.

The Tunisian government does not like the idea of a free press. There were three young women keeping an eye out for journalists at the airport when I arrived. I decided to avoid the Media desk and get through the police/passport check. But I had asked and noted down the address of where I needed to pick up my official badge, and one of them spotted my reporter's notepad.

I was immediately pulled aside, and while she was charming and helpful, she also managed to take down my name, passport number and even my NUJ number.

There is also a bizarre tendency for my hotel to try to keep hold of my passport whenever possible. First, it was just to make a copy of it. But that copy would for some reason take five hours. I went back and got it. But today, another reason was found to take it off me. What about the copy, I asked. "Oh, the copy didn't work, we need another one."

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