WSIS: Secret police, hunger and booze

The aftermath of a world summit


The real deal

Conference World and moaning about food made it twice as poignant when German journo Monika Ermert turned up at the press centre with shots of members of the Tunisian political opposition eating their first food - a date - since starting a hunger strike a few weeks ago. They were trying to highlight political repression in Tunisia.

"It was very... very... moving," she revealed, a little lost for words. The events held elsewhere in Tunis had had enormous press coverage. Despite being constantly stymied and moved on by the Tunisian authorities, somehow the various organisations had managed to consistently re-organise on the hoof. A large number of mainstream journalists, utterly bored and largely ignorant of the technical discussions going on at the Kram, had leapt on the human rights side to the World Summit and followed the groups' every move.

Following widespread condemnation and formal complaints from the EU and the UN about police behaviour, the groups had won their right to protest without physical intimidation. From my perspective, it was no longer worth following. I was here to write technical stories and simply gathering information that I would be unable to get printed anywhere seemed a waste of everyone's time now that the press spotlight had allowed them to make their point.

I imagine Monika - a tech reporter too - also thought it might be a waste of her time with only a day of the conference left and the fact that covering a protest rally would take at least four hours, getting there, watching, interviewing, and getting back.

Nevertheless, it struck home that these people were willing to risk their lives to draw attention to something. Suddenly it seemed as if I had owed it to them to at least turn up. A frequent criticism of the press is that it is power without responsibility. It is not strictly true.

The famous digital divide

Is there also a responsibility to cover stories because covering them would make people's lives better? Well, yes and no.

The whole point of this conference was "bridging the digital divide", which basically consists of getting phonelines to every corner of the globe. Having a computer at the end of it as well would be a good thing. But then the reality is that things have to be bigger and more important the further they are from an individual's location for them to be important.

There were lots of African countries here outlining the projects they have for building small networks in villages, but the truth is that I wouldn't care if this network was being built a mile away from my home, so why should I care if someone is building one in Africa?

What people don't often understand when they're really involved in such projects that do have such a large impact on some people's lives, is that they are one of many, many projects, having impacts on many small groups of people. And people will only want to read about it if it affects their small group of people. I can absolutely guarantee you that no Nigerian, Ghanaian, Mozambiquan or Tunisian is interested in why the work on the river footpath near my flat in Oxford hasn't been done, resulting in it being closed for seven months now. But if there was a local meeting about it tomorrow, I'd be there like a shot.

As a result, it is only the big picture that can be realistically covered. An entire country embarking on 150 such projects is a story - just about - and only in the context of this very small window of time thanks to the Summit.

I was talking to one bloke about how they were installing a monster cable right down the east coast of Africa that would break the virtual monopoly of the cable running down the west of Africa, and so slash prices. But he had just got as far as saying this and we were both simultaneously dragged off to meet other people - such is Conference World. If he's reading this, please send me an email.

Next page: Mental divide

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