FEAR AND LOATHING IN TUNIS - WELCOME TO FLIC CITY, THE GATED COMMUNITY OF THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

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The security for WSIS and the ITU’s Global Symposium of Regulators follows the popular tradition of saturation policing that follows large-scale international events these days. It seemed almost as if no corner did not contain two or three police and the road to Hammamet (about an hour from Tunis) had them at regular intervals along the route. There were even horse-mounted police and helicopters around the WSIS perimeter. (Although the police and potential terrorists clearly keep regular hours as there were few police in evidence in the rainy, early hours of one morning.)

Plain clothes police were also much in evidence. There seemed also to be a virtual cordon as various people reported that their blogs and web-sites had been blocked. Some of this was self-reinforcing paranoia but there were enough instances to lend credence to these allegations (see also report below in Internet News).

More worrying were the difficulties encountered by those organising the Citizens Summit on the Information Society. The organising group had difficulty finding a room in Tunis but eventually found one and booked it ahead of the event. At the last minute they were informed that the room was closed for maintenance and that the hire fee had been refunded.

To overcome this difficulty the group were offered a room in the Goethe Institute. Some were able to enter but a large plain clothes police cordon informed others who arrived that they could not go in and that they must disperse. The plain clothes police then started pushing people forcefully off the pavement and seized a local journalist.

According to one eyewitness:”We followed to see where he was being taken and once they were round the corner, they started slapping him around the face. I remonstrated with them and this distracted them so he was able to slip way into the traffic and catch a taxi. Afterwards we went to a local café with the German Ambassador who was asking what had happened. While we were talking to him, the café owner approached us and said we had to leave or the police would close the café down.”

The next day there was a press conference called to protest at what had happened attended by around 200 people, including several ambassadors. This time about 30 plain clothes were stationed “unobtrusively” on a nearby corner. When approached by someone with a video camera, they fled off down the street. But as one person who attended said:”This feels like a small victory for freedom of expression but I don’t know what will happen to local people who participated.’

The organisers of the HIVOS meeting on Expression under Repression were first told that they must change the title of the meeting or it would be cancelled. The Tunisian authorities relented but arranged for a notice saying it had been cancelled to be posted. However, it went ahead as planned. Another participant told us that he had turned up for a meeting only to be told that it was full by the plain clothes police outside. When he insisted on going in, he found that there were only 10 people in the room.