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The bust-up in Tunisia

Internet watchdog Sean O'Siochru found a climate of repression as the world gathered to debate Net liberties.

TUNIS, Tunisia--A civil liberties watchdog made headlines three years ago when it named Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali a "predator of press freedom." After Tunisia was chosen to host a high-profile Internet summit, though, Ben Ali pledged to halt practices described by Human Rights Watch as "constant and credible reports of torture" used on Tunisians who publicly criticize the government.

Ben Ali's administration distributed brochures to all attendees of the United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) here this week stressing that press freedom is respected. An official government history says "Ben Ali made Tunisia a pioneer country in the protection of human rights."

That hasn't exactly happened. French journalist Christophe Boltanski, who had arrived early to write about Ben Ali's civil-liberties record, was stabbed in an assault by four men and by nearby police. On Thursday, Tunisian police barred the head of Reporters Without Borders from exiting the plane to attend WSIS.

Political and sex-themed Web sites continue to be blocked. , created last month as an online demonstration against Ben Ali's regime, says it was blocked 18 hours after its launch. Human Rights Watch said in a new report that e-mail accounts and Internet cafes are strictly controlled and encryption is banned.

CNET News.com interviewed Sean O'Siochru, coordinator of a non-profit called based in Dublin, Ireland.

Q: You've followed this situation closely. Would you call President Ben Ali a "?"
O'Siochru: I've worked in Turkmenistan. If you want to see the worst press predators, go there. Tunisia isn't even the worst Arab country. But there is no question that the human rights situation here is very bad. It became worse in the time leading up to the summit. We had hoped that the country would have made a serious effort in advance.

How has the WSIS summit addressed online civil liberties?
O'Siochru: We would have hoped that a world summit on the information society would underline and strengthen those human rights that specially relate to the dissemination of information. We have not found--in fact you will find no instance of where the existing human rights that relate to the Internet have been strengthened thanks to WSIS. At least they haven't been weakened.

One would have hoped that you could bring United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the Information Age. Freedom of information applies to the Internet. Access to information applies.

So you were trying to get the WSIS delegates to mention that the Declaration applies to the Internet, and you couldn't?
O'Siochru: There was opposition to reaffirming it. The human rights language that was included in the declaration has not been translated into the "action plan" that has been emerging. That would ensure that in cyberspace, human rights are (included in the declaration).

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe yesterday told delegates, to much applause, that there was too much free speech on the Internet. Is this symptomatic of the WSIS summit?
I don't think it translated on the practical level. This is only fluff. It's rhetoric. It's to be expected. That wasn't followed up with specific action.

What's the mood been like here for civil liberties groups?
O'Siochru: There have been incidents inside and outside (WSIS). Probably the most important thing is the long-held plans for the Citizens' Summit outside the primary WSIS area--we couldn't go forward with it. The venues were disrupted by the security forces.

O'Siochru: First a hotel couldn't be found, then one was booked, and money was paid. Then it was cancelled, and the money won't be returned. It's since emerged that it was the security forces.

The second point was that the organizing committee on Monday of this week at the Goethe Institute was blocked. It's affiliated with the German embassy. The German ambassador himself was prevented from entering. He was furious at being blocked physically from the institute. At that point it had reached a fever pitch. And that made it impossible for us to find an alternate venue.

We had scheduled only one session on Tunisia. The rest was on other topics, including communication issues and open source software. It was never intended to provoke the Tunisian authorities.

Isn't that a little short-sighted of the Tunisian government, especially when hundreds of foreign journalists are visiting?
O'Siochru: It's worked for them up until now. I honestly believe that they would have come out a lot better by making some small concessions.

Now let me say that since then it's clear that the government has become a little more sensitive (in the last few days). They've allowed a press conference.

Tell me about the hunger strike?
O'Siochru: The hunger strike has been going on since October 18. It's quite a distinct issue. They're hunger striking over freedom of expression and release of political prisoners. (Nobel Laureate) Shirin Ebadi visited them and urged them to cease their fast.) It was literally a plate of dates she gave them.

Is the United Nations' choice to hold a world Internet summit here symbolic?
O'Siochru: Tunis was the first country to suggest hosting the summit. There's not a huge amount of thought going into the location. It's supposed to be an honor to hold it. Tunisia wanted to show off its best face, show that it's a modern country. This is why I don't understand why they decided to crack down.