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

Asking the questions, giving the answers

This time I will have to wait until tomorrow to get it back, I was charmingly informed. I need it to get into the Summit first thing tomorrow, I warned. I probably didn't need it to get into the Summit, I was told. Oh yes I do, and I'm not leaving without it, was my response. I wonder what excuse they will dream up tomorrow.

Tunisia and freedom of speech

There are some intriguing paragraphs in the official guide to Tunisia stuck inside our official Summit bags under the title "Culture and Media".

"The media landscape offers great diversity and pluralism," it starts. "About 250 domestic publications and nearly 950 foreign newspapers and magazines distributed in Tunisia."

But this is by far in a way my favourite bit: "There are about 973 journalists and more than 70 foreign correspondents in Tunisia." About 973. Now what gives you the feeling that the governments just might keep an eye on its domestic journalists?

And here's some great wording: "Liberalisation measures taken by the government since 1987 have encouraged the media in general and offered more incentives to the opposition press in particular." I never realised that "opposition press" needed incentives.

What about the reported clamping down on free use of the Internet - which apparently includes monitoring of every cyber cafe? "Special efforts have been exerted to introduce new communication and information technologies," we are told, and there is a "progressive generalisation of the use of the internet."

Then there are several odd boasts. One, there are now more than 1,750 Tunisian websites. Two, the number of internet users has hit 850,000. Third, here are 45 telephone lines for every 100 inhabitants. And fourth, 35.6 percent of Tunisian homes have a fixed-line telephone.

Now with a population of just under 10 million, that means out of a possible 3.5 to 4.5 million people that could be connected to the internet, only 850,000 do so. The reason is because Tunisia prefers to make its internet access available through "public internet service centers" - and not through each individual's phoneline with the infrastructure built by ISPs.

If anything, the figures demonstrate that Tunisians are very keen to access the net but are being held back. The figure of under 2,000 websites for a population of 10 million shows more clearly than anything the controlling stance the government has taken with respect to the internet, especially, it would seem, the revolution of self-publishing.

Tunisia and the UN

Which inevitably leads to the question: why did the UN choose Tunisia of all places to host the World Summit on the Information Society when it must have known it would be controversial?

The answer, of course, is money.

It is unbelievably, incredibly expensive and complex to host a World Summit. The Tunisian government has clearly invested millions doing up the roads, adding road signs, building a brand new conference complex (which didn't have a roof until a week ago), planting god-knows how many palm trees and plants, assembling a fleet of buses to ferry the thousands of delegates to and from the centre all day every day. And so on, and so on. It should be justifiably proud of the job it has done.

But the real reason the UN signed the contract was because Tunisia promised to cover its full expenses. The UN has had staff in Tunisia for a month now. It also has its own logistical nightmare as it is officially in charge of the running of the conference itself.

Normally however the deal is the host country for such events stumps up half the per-day costs. Tunisia offered the whole shebang.

Except, someone at the UN didn't read the small print. Tunisia is paying the UN in Tunisian dinars - which are, unfortunately for everyone except the Tunisians, non-transferable. You either spend them in Tunisia or you carry around worthless paper with you for the rest of your life.

Of course, since Tunisia is dirt cheap, actually spending the money has proved difficult. Nonetheless, one brave soul - an IT specialist I am proud to say - somehow managed to get through what the Tunisian government had given him and asked for the remainder owed. He was told he couldn't have any more because he had been given enough to live on in Tunisia.

That decision is very likely to be overturned once the UN big-wigs get involved but that will still leave hundreds of staff with tens of thousands of pounds that they can't possibly spend. So for any entrepreneurial Tunisian businessmen out there, opportunity knocks.

That's not all Tunisia has been up to either. All of the thousands of posters dotted around the city exclaiming the Summit point to a rather precise if dull Tunisian URL -www.wsistunis2005.tn, rather than the official site at www.itu.int/wsis. On top of that, Tunisia has decided to knock up its own logo for the event which looks very similar to the official one except for the fact that the Tunisian flag appears in the middle. It's safe to assume the UN is not over-the-top happy about this.

Vox pops

All that said, Tunisia does appear to be a surprisingly happy and relaxed place. Taxi drivers - the best arbiters in any country - don't have the same wariness that usually comes with authoritative regimes. Or the same anger. You won't get them talking about politics very easily, but they're a happy bunch as a rule.

The reason why is given in the official documentation. Key economic and social indicators. A big pull-quote on the first page says: "Tunisia stands out as a society where 80 per cent of the population is considered middle-class and where all citizens benefit from improved living standards."

And that's it. Unlike many parts of Africa, and the world, there is no vast discrepancy between the rich and the poor. I have not heard any tales either of ghettos or urban violence (unlike France) or threats to tourists and foreigners. Tunisians are doing alright, thank you very much. There isn't much freedom of speech, but, you know, things could be much much worse.®


More of Kieren's meandering nonsense can be found at www.kierenmccarthy.co.uk.

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