The objective seemed simple. Plan a small gathering of people who shared the same foundation funders and were in Tunis for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) the week of Nov. 15. But each time the reception was booked, the hotel or restaurant called to cancel. So an elaborate ruse was devised. Handwritten notes were passed surreptitiously from participant to participant. The notes conveyed directions to a certain restaurant and directed guests to say they were attending a "birthday party," if asked.
The event went off smoothly. Journalists and activists broke bread and shared worldviews. But as we were leaving, three of the participants' cell phones - two left on tables and one charging behind the bar -- went missing. The management took no responsibility. Was this just petty thievery or payback for the distinctly political tenor of our group? The whole WSIS experience in Tunisia was like a good meal with an unpleasant aftertaste. Sponsored by the United Nations, the World Summit Involved 174 countries and nearly 20,000 government, nonprofit and private sector participants. The scant coverage of the WSIS by the world's mainstream press focused on the Internet governance fight. The European Union and many developing countries challenged the U.S. government's oversight of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit with ties to the U.S. Commerce Department that handles the Internet's
day-to-day functioning. (The WSIS concluded with an agreement to let ICANN continue as it is, but to hold an Internet Governance Forum next year to discuss larger Internet-related issues.) But the WSIS was about more than Internet governance. The formal UN piece of the conference aimed to be a "Summit of Solutions," finding ways to use new and emerging technology to improve the lot of all countries, and to bridge the digital divide. It concluded with a lot of promises, but few concrete offers of aid to make this goal a reality.
However, civil society groups, meeting simultaneously at the WSIS, used the conference to talk about social justice and to network, fostering what may become a worldwide media and telecommunications reform movement that ultimately bears fruit.
The push for reform by both the international community and civil society groups was strongly tested in Tunisia, where policeman and soldiers, complete with machine guns, sprouted like flowers on every street corner and overpass. The Tunisian government wanted the Summit to showcase the country's economic and technological advances. Human rights advocates hoped the international attention would relax Tunis' stranglehold on free expression. As Elizabeth Robinson of AMARC (the World Association of Community Radio
Broadcasters) put it, "There are reasons for going to places that are risky if you can precipitate reform." At the Summit's opening, Swiss President Samuel Schmid pointedly reminded the government that the Summit's success demanded "that here in Tunis, inside these walls and outside, anyone can discuss quite freely." But like a host confronted with rowdy guests, Tunisia clamped down. The site of the WSIS was in a remote part of the city, off limits to most cabs. Participants were ferried to and from the site from their government-selected hotels by government-sponsored shuttles. Concierges monitored every move.
Even worse, the government would not allow some of its own civil society groups to
participate in the Summit, or to hold unofficial events off the Summit premises. The head of Reporters Without Borders was detained at the airport and denied entry. A Belgian TV crew was attacked, and a French journalist was stabbed.
Reacting to these events, several human rights groups cancelled their WSIS panels for one day to express their outrage. "Oppression has escalated," noted Arne Hintz, of the German WSIS Civil Society Coordinating Group. Despite its unfortunate location and tenuous results, the WSIS was still a worthwhile
Experiment. The World Summit reminded us of how much we have to achieve as human beings before we can attain the promise that technology holds. And it brought together thousands of people of good will working towards a vision of an inclusive democratic media. Our future lies in the hands of people like the reformers I met in Tunis. The white South African journalist, imprisoned for three years for his opposition to apartheid, finding innovative ways to tell the stories of technology and the digital divide to an African audience. The children's rights advocate from Thailand who lobbies governments to do
more to protect the use of the Internet to disseminate child pornography and to ensnare vulnerable youngsters. The feminist from Trinidad and Tobago frustrated by a culture that discourages women's use of the Internet and sees computers as "boy toys." Bineta Diop, head of Femmes Africa Solidarite, a group of African women peacemakers, particularly impressed me. Diop is appalled by a culture of war that permits rapes, the recruitment of child soldiers, and brutality like the cutting off of the hands of the victims of war.
But Diop's solution lies not in technology, but in going back in history, to remind warmongers of the values that bring them together. "In Burundi, you couldn't tell the Hutu and Tutsi tribes apart," Diop said. "They share a common language and culture, and yet they kill each other. So we women go deep into our values and traditions" to unite
peoples and bring peace.
Imagine if the reformers of the world held a conference to consider the impact of the invention of the printing press in 1452. Gutenberg's wonderful device helped to spread the notions of democracy and equality, but it did not kill tyranny. Neither will the new ICTs - information and communication technologies. The challenges of living together in peace, of respecting diverse points of view, of gender equity, and of sharing resources persist despite our technological marvels. This is the lesson of the WSIS, taught by the thousands of activists in Tunis.
A former journalist, Celia Wexler represented Common Cause at the World Summit. She plays a key role in Common Cause's media reform advocacy.