Wednesday, November 16, 2005


By Rebecca Wanjiku

It was a breath taking moment as more than 100 Cameras rolled at the same time and a crowd of about a thousand delegates rose in unison and applauded.

It was the official opening ceremony of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) and the host - Tunisian president Ben Ali walked into the plenary hall accompanied by United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan, ITU secretary General Yoshio Utsumi, president of the preparatory committee Janis Karklin, Swiss president Samuel Schmid, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and Craig Barrett from Intel Corporation:

As they took their seats, the giant television screens and state of the art cameras captured every moment and the security detail, which is trademark in such meetings ensured that everyone took their place.

There were no traditional dancers, no camel dancing or children singing their tunes, here there were men and women, dressed in suits, traditional wear and holding on to their laptops, camera phones and other communication gadgets.

The civilian-dressed security officers formed a single file signifying the difference in seating arrangements. The observers were not allowed to sit with the government delegates and another file equally kept off the photojournalists.

Most participants were locked out of the plenary hall as the organizers directed that only four members per delegation were allowed in and observer badges were given to organizations. There are 150 countries represented at the meeting.

It was time for the host president to welcome the delegates.

A confident looking Ali heaped praise to the host country and to ITU for accepting the proposal to hold WSIS “in this beautiful and ancient land of dialogue and tolerance”. The participants listened keenly.

After underlining the historical significance of holding the summit in Tunisia, he invited the UN Secretary General to address the gathering.

When he rose to the podium, he was as calm as always, did not read any speech but spoke from his heart. His emphasis on moving from dialogue to deeds and the movement of his hands demonstrated the confidence he had that both the government and private sector were capable of bridging the digital divide.

The ability to bridge the digital divide was also stressed by the Swiss president who got special attention from the floor when he said it “is unacceptable that some UN members still imprison those who criticize their governments.” The clapping grew louder when he insisted that freedom of expression and information should be the central themes of WSIS.

His speech was a milder version of what Shirin Ebadi had to say.

The Iranian lawyer made a stinging attack on government that set aside huge military budgets yet complain about digital divide and the heads of government that start the own NGOs then send them as representatives to such meetings.

But the ovation greeted her when she demanded liberation of prisoners of conscience and for an end to filtering of certain internet sites that some governments forbid their subjects from visiting. She was speaking on behalf of Civil Society.

After an hour of marathon speech, six African heads of government were given a chance to address the meeting. It was a time for them to recite their gains as well as challenges in bridging the digital divide.