An extraordinary criticism of Tunisia’s approach to the Internet was fired at its president Zine Ben Ali at the opening ceremony of the World Summit in Tunis this morning.
Swiss president Samuel Schmid drew huge applause from the back of the room when he directly criticised Tunisia’s controlling Internet policies. "It is unsupportable that the UN still has members that imprison their own citizens because of what they have written on the Internet or in the press," he said. "Everyone should be able to express their views freely."
Ben Ali shifted uncomfortably in his chair and refused to look at Schmid when he sat down next to him after finishing his speech. However, Schmid’s speech was followed up by even more direct criticism from Shirin Abadi from the International Federation for Human Rights.
"Certain governments that are not genuinely elected by their people do not reflect the people’s desire on Internet matters," she said. "It is important to make sure that non-governmental organisations are not manipulated by creating so-called NGOs that transmit false information on the situation prevailing in their country."
That was a direct reference to a diplomatic incident that happened in Tunis on Monday, when Tunisian police forcibly prevented local and international human rights organisations from meeting to organise an alternative "Citizen Summit". The German ambassador to the UN became involved, as did several World Summit participants who have immunity in Tunisia while the Summit continues. The trouble sparked an official EU complaint to the Tunisian foreign ministry yesterday afternoon.
Ms Abadi went to slam countries that "suppress an author that expresses any criticism of their government" - to which Ben Ali, acting as chair of the ceremony, shook his head.
The extraordinarily frank criticism followed Ben Ali’s own opening speech to the Summit in which he spoke at some length about his view of the Internet. Its content clearly irritated the other speakers.
"We look forward to the adoption of practical decisions and proposals to solve the questions put forth by the information society," he said, before continuing: "These last few years have witnessed the emergence of some types of use that shake call into question the credibility of information. Some arouse racism, hatred, terrorism. Others disseminate allegations and falsehoods."
He went on to describe how society would have to make individuals "commit to responsible use" of the Net, and how it was necessary to "set ethical standards". The current culture of the Internet, he argued, was not a true representation of the world’s people as a whole and how there was a "collective moral responsibility" to change this. He then outlined how Tunisia was "enlarging the scope of individual freedom."
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s address was less directly critical but nevertheless made a strong statement. Freedom, he said, was "the information society’s lifeblood". He continued: "It is freedom that enables citizens everywhere to benefit from knowledge, for journalists to do their essential work, and citizens to hold government accountable".
A few hours later, he told a press conference that he has personally spoke to President Ben Ali about the problems with human rights and press freedom in Tunisia, and he answered questions by journalists about the practice of Tunisia to block websites and control access directly.
"It is one thing to establish standards and another to achieve them," Annan said, before adding that by having the conference in Tunisia it had in fact "put a spotlight on the issues here".
Suddenly it seemed that rather than the UN being wrong for hosting the event in Tunisia, it was Tunisia that had most to lose from the deal.®