Despite the odds, we managed to pull off our “Expression Under Repression” seminar here at the World Summit For Internet and Society. This was largely thanks to the strong spine of our sponsors, the Dutch NGO Hivos, who fended off a phalanx of plainclothes police who tried to shut us down. The goons finally backed off after the Dutch ambassador intervened and warned of a diplomatic incident. Before we began, uncertainty and rumor reigned about whether we’d be allowed to hold the event at all. On Wednesday, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Tunisian authorities told organizers that the seminar’s theme had nothing to do with the “ICT for Development” theme of the conference, and was thus inappropriate. On the morning of the seminar a sign outside the room said it was canceled. It was not included in the official program, and a rumor heard from delegates who visited the UNDP pavillion claimed that people who showed up would get arrested. Our colleagues have posted some eyewitness accounts of the action here.
Speakers included Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi, Chinese blogger Isaac Mao, Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan, and Zimbabwean internet activist Taurai Maduna. Ethan Zuckerman blogged about the circumstances under which we opened the seminar and my opening remarks. (See my own pre-seminar notes here.) He also blogged some of the presentations: Isaac and Taurai. Jeff Ooi spoke eloquently about how blogging is helping to democratize a media environment in Malaysia in which the media has traditionally been dominated by the ruling party and its allies.
The Open Net Initiative ’s Technical Director Nart Villeneuve also gave an excellent presentation on how governments are filtering and censoring the internet worldwide. Nart is one of the authors of a new report on how Tunisia censors the internet – with the help of a U.S. software company. Here is his blog post about the issue. Tomorrow Ethan will lead a hands-on workshop to teach people how to circumvent this kind of censorship, and also how to blog anonymously.
Several Tunisian journalists in the audience challenged the validity of our subject matter, arguing that economic development and social stability are a priority over freedom of speech in poor nations. Hossein, Isaac and Taurai strongly disagreed. Taurai pointed out that if people aren’t free to speak out when officials are stealing their food and misappropriating resources, they’re more likely to remain poor. Hossein agreed that poverty in many parts of the world is as much a product of repression and corruption than anything else, and that greater freedom of speech can empower citizens to pull themselves out of poverty.
Ethan also has an excellent post with updated photos on the parallel civil society summit held in downtown Tunis by democracy activists on Wednesday evening. Both he and I attended.
For other WSIS blogging by Global Voices community members, check out Jeff Ooi’s post on internet governance from a Malayisan perspective.