He who pays the piper calls the tune
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He who pays the piper calls the tune

The WSIS+20 Forum High-Level Event to be held in Geneva 27-31 May 2024 will mark twenty years of progress made in the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society, which took place in two phases – Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005. The first WSIS set the framework for global cooperation on what were then referred to as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) with a vision to build people-centric, inclusive, and development-oriented information and knowledge societies.

The WSIS+20 Forum High-Level Event is intended to serve as a platform for multistakeholder discussions with the aim of taking stock of achievements and key trends, challenges, and opportunities since the Geneva Plan of Action in 2003.

The WSIS+20 Forum High-Level Event is co-organized by ITU, UNESCO, UNDP, and UNCTAD and co-hosted by ITU and the Swiss Confederation. It also has as its Platinum Partner the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and as its Gold Plus Partner the Communications, Space, and Technology Commission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The UAE’s Federal Law No. 15 (1980) on Press and Publication remains one of the most restrictive laws currently in force in the Arab world, with absolute control of the media, governing censorship of national as well as international publications. According to Reporters Without Borders, “The government prevents both local and foreign independent media outlets from thriving by tracking down and persecuting dissenting voices. Expatriate Emirati journalists risk being harassed, arrested, or extradited.”

The situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be worse. Access Now claims that “In Saudi Arabia, expressing yourself online is extremely dangerous. Numerous bloggers, dissidents, and women’s rights defenders have faced unjust prosecution, harsh prison sentences, and travel bans simply for expressing dissent and standing up for human rights. This digital repression is set to get even worse. Saudi authorities have recently proposed two laws that, if enacted, would further restrict free expression online, even potentially silencing people outside Saudi Arabia.”

The organisers of the WSIS+20 High-Level Event apparently see no irony in having two Partners with lamentable track records in media freedoms and democratic communications. Those present at WSIS 2005 in Tunisia, will remember the overt harassment of the government security services. The country’s then ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Assembly, routinely used the threat of terrorism and religious extremism as a pretext to crack down on peaceful dissent, severely restricting freedom of expression and freedom of association.

WSIS+20, which takes place in 2025 and which should uphold communication rights to help achieve whatever emerges from the UN Summit of the Future taking place in September 2024, may be the last chance for communicative justice based on plurality, diversity, and the genuine participation of civil society in its conception, implementation, and operation.

Photo: Week 27 of an anti-government protest in Haifa, Israel, July 2023. Credit: RnDmS/Shutterstock

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