Took a cab to the Kram Palexbo, where the Summit and IT 4 All exhibition was happening[…] When we finally got to the site, we were stopped 5 times at security checks at every turn of the road and I had to flash my registration card and a big smile to calm the security that I was indeed, a legitimate subject to attend this conference, accredited (somehow) and all. Took a cab to the Kram Palexbo, where the Summit and IT 4 All exhibition was happening.
This is not near the airport as I originally thought, but actually located in the middle of somewhere that looks like a construction site. All along the journey, I kept wishing I had Douglas Adams’ babelfish so I could converse with the taxi driver in Arabic or French and asked him about what his impression of the Summit is.
Instead, I was forced to enjoy miniscule images of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of the Republic of Tunisia, fluttering from red and white buntings at almost every main street.
When we finally got to the site, we were stopped five times at security checks at every turn of the road and I had to flash my registration card and a big smile to calm the security that I was indeed, a legitimate subject to attend this conference, accredited (somehow) and all.
Hmm. It felt slightly eerie, a bit like making a visit to Kamunting, where (mainly) political prisoners were kept under the Internal Security Act back home. Another hmm.
So after the taxi dropped me off, I had to take a minibus to the actual site. Before going on, three persons opened and checked the contents of my bag. They were slightly unhappy about my camera, but considering it’s teeny tiny non-threatening Ixus-pocket size, they said "okay, no problem, thank you", and added as an afterthought – with a smile of course, "welcome".
More security before going in, putting bags into the X-ray conveyor belt, body scanned, pressing card against a reader where the security guy checks my convict picture with my now clean face, and we’re IN! Phew
Maybe there is an poignant metaphor to be culled from this experience somewhere. When ICT is purportedly for All, there are still so many challenges and obstacles to go through, and to be privileged enough somehow, before access can be gained into the space – physical or digital.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable in my skin, I scanned the Kram Palexbo area.
They are mainly white tents constructed specifically for the Summit, with different gates to have access into different areas. Gate 4 gave me access into the exhibition area. Needless to say, there are security guards at every entrance and exit. Sometimes armed with truncheons, sometimes more, sometimes none. I am not sure what their criteria is.
This experience really threw me somewhat.
In some way, I am not really surprised by heavy policing of civil society, coming from a country where SBs (special branch of the police) can swarm like flies to over-riped mango.
Also, this is a global summit where a lot of Very Important People are expected to be present: government representatives, leaders of international corporations, international donor agencies, transnational and national civil society organisations, activists and networks, and there was even a rumour that Oprah Winfrey might be here. So, there is a need to make sure that security of participants are protected, to an extent.
But the strong presence and visibility of borders, gates, guns, uniforms, truncheons, militant machismo… all served with a smile, is a little bit too overwhelming.
Coupled with the heavy handed treatment of local human rights activists and journalists, the irony of Policed and Regulated Freedoms was exceedingly distracting. What are government delegates and representatives from all over the world thinking about the situation? Are they aware? How do these random valuation of ‘democracy’ vs ‘trouble-makers’ become justified?
Is this a case where suddenly governments are voraciously nodding their heads in agreement to respect national sovereignity where ‘each State should know best who their trouble makers are, and anyway we have bigger fish to fry here’?. Even as this is contentious as far as issues of Internet governance go?
Some regions like the European Union are articulating their concern over the issue and openly extending their support towards the protection of human rights, Tunisian and otherwise. However, I do wonder how many participants of WSIS are aware, concerned, agitated, discomfited by the protection of security for the VIPs at the expense of the not-so VIPs, and to what extent this is reflected on debates about issues of online security?
As individual members of civil society who may not have the privilege of access to spaces where knowledge is created, decisions are made and resources divided, which most of us are, how are we positioned in the macro-politics and economy of digital and physical security when it comes to a global resource like ICT?
More importantly, do we get a say in where we get to stand?