News, views and what I choose to dos

WSIS: Secret police, hunger and booze

Category : Funny, Internet governance · by Nov 21st, 2005

Secret policemen: you miss 'em when they're gone. It seems most people shipped out of Tunis soon after the closing ceremony ended around 7pm. When I got back to my hotel around 10pm, there was only one secret policeman standing guard and he didn't even bother to inspect my badge.

This morning, I only saw one who idly came to check out why a lunatic Englishman was in the swimming pool. To Tunisians, the weather is almost unbearably cold. To me, it feels like a cool spot during the summer. Besides that swimming pool had been mocking me for a week. Unless I was willing to get up at 5am or go for a midnight dip, I haven't had a chance to get near it since the conference opened.

These aren't proper secret police anyway, mere security. And I hope to God the real ones weren't the men pretending to be journalists in the press centre this week either. If they were, the Tunisians really have very little to be afraid of. If MI5, say, were to decide to infiltrate a news organisation, it would train the people up, make em at least able to appear to do the job. Instead, Tunisian secret police appear to have come direct from Tunisian secret police training school.

Pre-requisite skills are the ability to wear a cheap suit badly, sit for hours on end not doing anything except showing indirect interest in the loudest and quietest people in any room, and to forget to maintain your cover when outside of the immediate area.

I asked one, in French, what he was working on, just for a laugh. He just mumbled some in Arabic and stared at the keyboard as if willing it to start typing something.

Conference World – where human existence is put on hold

That you can start to enjoy the fact people are being paid to spy on you is a clear sign that you have entered Conference World ™ – a self-contained microcosm of madness where even the most ridiculous things become accepted as normal.

Conference World this time took on two of my personal favourite pasttimes: eating food and drinking booze. There was a media cafe in the media centre that was completely free, which was fantastic. Or it would have been if it had served more than coffee, water, juice and hors d'oeuvres.

You could have a mini-pain-au-chocolate, or a mini-croissant, or a date with some strange sweet bogey attached to it for free. But ask for a sandwich and you got blank looks. Offer them money and they will insist: “No, no, it is gratuit. Free.” No, you say, for a sandwich. “You can buy sandwich in conference.”

No booze either. Absolutely no booze. Not even a sherry. Whoever heard of a press area without alcohol? Having got up at 6.30am, started work at 8.30am and worked through to 9pm with nothing but a mini-croissant and five cups of coffee to keep you going, believe me, they could have been charging £10 for a pint and they'd have had a queue round the block.

It's not the Islamic thing either. Alcohol is freely available in Tunisia – even if the alcohol aisle at the supermarket has doors either end. Besides the Kram centre was officially UN territory during the summit.

But then we heard a rumour that they served beer and wine at the restaurant at the far end of the centre. A scout was dispatched and quickly confirmed. But when we arrived, we were informed that you have to buy a 35 dinar meal before you can buy any alcohol. “Fuck it, it's worth it,” someone, possibly me, said. But the truth was that sitting down and eating a meal was going to take too long. We had another 200 press conferences to go to, 350 interviews to do, and 1,238 events we had planned to poke our heads into to see if anything interesting was going on. We were in Conference World.

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.

Mental divide

The cost of access is no laughing matter either. My hotel had an Internet link installed just for the conference. It was two or three days late, so I only got to try to u
se it today. It doesn't have a Wi-Fi box and it's not free either. In fact, it is ridiculously expensive.

And, reflecting this, the prices are displayed for 15 minutes, 30 minutes or one hour. It would strike the people here as insane that I may want to be on the Internet for longer than an hour. But at 15 dinars an hour – £7 – they may be right. A 15-minute cab ride here costs five dinars, a bottle of wine seven dinars, a meal at a good restaurant 20 dinars. The equivalent in England would be Internet access at £15 an hour.

Another indication of how used I've got to the Internet and how the Internet itself has moved on is that the people here just couldn't understand why I would want to attach my own laptop to the system. [I was caught pulling out the Ethernet cables and plugging them into my computer but whoever had installed the network knew what they were doing and I couldn't immediately bypass the security.]

After a brief attempted explanation of username and passwords, bookmarks and complex URLs, I gave up and said I just wanted to use a machine in English. The woman went to and – with some pride at her knowledge – told me “look all in English”.

Here, to my mind, was a pure example of the digital divide in action. It wasn't so much the technology, or even the price, but the fact that it was nigh on impossible to explain the complex ways in which Internet access had become so indelible and important in my life. In terms of technology, I am already two laps ahead of her for no reason other than the fact I have had access to this stuff for much longer.

Another reality check

No sooner had I reflected on this than I was again thrown into another world. I very unhappily dragged myself up the steps to the hotel restaurant resigned to the fact that I was too hungry to be choosy, and discovered it was shut.

So I decided to take a stroll up the beach until I hit another hotel that hopefully would be somewhat better than mine and serve food to its guests. I did exactly that, experiencing the surreal world that a tourist resort out of season always inhabits and settled down in a huge room of laid tables, by myself, for lunch.

There must have been a few Summit participants stay here, but there were gone now. I was surprised then to hear a series of English voices come in behind me. I can't put my finger on what it was but I immediately knew who and what they were. There are the new brand of social grouping that no-one has yet to fully exploit – the travelling pensioners. Loads of em. All English and all complaining about the foreign food (“well you've got to expect it in Tuns, haven't you?”).

They didn't come in a group but of course they had all met each other, sharing, as old people of the same nationality always do, tiny snippets of information about themselves every time they stroll past each other.

Now I know these people. They come from the exact same culture and country as me. We could talk for hours and never need to explain any point. And yet I know they have no interest in the Internet. Or the World Summit. Or politicial supression. Or even unconnected villages in Africa. And yet here we all are, munching away, sharing the same room on the North African coastline in November 2005 wondering what to do with the rest of the day.


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