On 20th August 2020, Digital Shelter hosted a landmark forum titled “Digital Transformation and the Future of the Online Civic Space in Somalia” which was part of the African Digital Rights Fund series. The forum brought together thought leaders, tech activists, ICT experts, media practitioners, civil society representatives as well as senior government officials.
The forum was opened with keynote speech by Mr Abdiaziz Duwane Isak, Director General of the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Technology (MPTT) of federal republic of Somalia. Mr Duwane forwarded a word of thank to the participants and the host team for organizing this groundbreaking gathering. He updated on current developments in policy, legislation and implementation highlighting the increasing internet penetration in Somalia while at the same time emphasizing the need for increased access to internet in rural areas.
“I am delighted to be here today with you on behalf of MPPT and I would like to start by thanking you for organizing this magnificent forum. As you are aware, Somalia has recorded rapid growth in telephone penetration as the country comes Somalia comes as the 1st in Africa and 7th country in the world where the cost of 1GB of internet is the cheapest” he said during the opening speech.
The Director General briefly talked about current national ICT policy and government priorities in relation to public service delivery through utilizing new ICT infrastructure. “One of our key priorities as Ministry is developing e-government services in line with national development plans in order to facilitate our public service deliver and completely transform manual to online process.” He added.
First Panel Discussion
Initial keynotes were followed by panel discussion on access to technology and public serviced delivery. Among the panelists who joined this session were:-
Eng Ali Afey: Director of ICT department, MPTT
Faduma Abdi Ali: Commissioner of civic engagement with Pan African Youth Union
Muna Hassan: Award-winning youth campaigner, political officer with African Union (AU) in Somalia.
In the first panel discussion, panelists were asked some questions relating to how citizens and the government are leveraging technology for service delivery and civic engagement. Eng Ali Afey highlighted national priorities and plans for digitization of public services while also touching upon the technical and financial challenges involved in developing these processes. Panelists also discussed another crucial point which was about the digital divide when it comes to access to internet in general and access to technology.
Faduma and Muna underlined the current gap especially gender divide where the ICT sector is entirely dominated by men. “Just like the traditional context, internet and the ICT sector is another male-dominated world which consequently leave women behind.” Said Faduma “it is good for Somalia to celebrate as a country that offers the cheapest internet package in Africa but the reality is that large number of our population are disconnected, there are places with zero connections in some parts of the country. we need bridge that gap” said Muna.
Eng Ali Afey emphasized the need for cooperation between internet service providers and government to ensure wider access of internet in rural areas. “over the years, significant achievements have been reached in the ICT sector with the introduction of mobile money which boosted our economy, thanks largely due to the internet but we have to ask ourselves, how many of us are digitally disconnected? Are the most vulnerable groups of our community including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) accessing internet at affordable prices?”
Key takeaways from the discussion were that technology and the internet can be a great enabler for girls but a lack of opportunities, skills and a fear of discrimination prevent many from using and creating digital tools and online content.
To achieve gender equality, girls and young women, disabled, IDPs and other marginalized communities in the country need equal access to internet and technology. They should be provided with the necessary capacity building programs to benefit from ever growing digital space.
Second Panel Discussion
The second panel discussion was focusing more on keeping our online civic space open, inclusive and safe with three other panelist including:-
Abdisalam Aato, storyteller, filmmaker who has huge followers on social media (Twitter)
Naima Dahir: information systems expert
Dr Peter Chonka, Researcher and Lecturer at King’s College London.
In this session, panelists first discussed current status of online civic space in Somalia especially on social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok) looking from different perspectives. Aato spoke about the shrinking space with the increasing online attacks, cyberbullying against critical voices, dissidents and journalists. He shared several examples of how digital threats can have serious consequences and at times could be fatal for anyone trying to express their onion, media practitioners are the most affected victims.
“I was once attacked, physically tortured because of an article I published on website i was running. My friend who got beaten sustained serious injuries, unfortunately three months later, he succumbed to his injuries and died in hospital.” He said
Abdisalam also showed concerns over the rapidly deteriorating state of press freedom and frequent harassment against journalists in Somalia. he call for the government to end harassment of journalists and media outlets. “When you see that civic space is shrinking in a country that means press freedom is also worsening, these days, we have seen journalists being arrested, intimidated and harassed because of exposing truth, others were in fact arrested and charged because of social media posts. These platforms were meant to amplify voices of the ordinary citizens particularly those who are active on social media, now they are being silenced with some imposing self-censorship”
Looking from gender perspective, Naima highlighted the increased gendered-online attacks against women and girls when asked a question on challenges faced by Somali women in the online space. “ in general, omen’s visibility in the digital space is very low compared to that of man and that is perhaps because of our traditional societal structure which excludes women from other layers of life” she started her remarks.
“Gender stereotypes that prevail in our communities are often reflected also in online spaces, the internet was supposed to be an equal space for everybody regardless of their gender status, a place that offers safe and secure environment for women to learn, participate and be productive but unfortunately we are being denied of this space.”
“But then as if that was not enough, women are being constantly attacked in the online space, because of their gender status in many cases, some have been targeted because of their profession, while others were attacked due to their fame. It is the like the digital space was only made for men.”
Dr Peter from King’s College London who was participating the forum via Zoom also explained about evaluating misinformation and disinformation in the media landscape in Somalia, he briefly talked about process of detecting fake news on social media platforms and the different ways to verify contents shared online platform. He also underlined that access to internet has now become one of the basic human rights witnessing how crucial it is for our day lives to continue during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to the panel discussions, Mr Abdirahman Africa who is the national ICT adviser to the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Technology presented brief session on national ICT implementation process. During this session, Abdirahman highlighted key priorities of the government on expanding access to internet in rural areas and the plans for digitizing public services which was highly discussed after his session.
Proceedings of the forum was instantly being shared on twitter using the hashtag #DSF2020 which generate huge impressions and interaction on the platform. The Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications & Technology (MPTT) shared a tweet on its official twitter page about the event reaching more audience at home and abroad. Key outcome of this forum was to keep the conversation around digital rights on. DS team announced that monthly meet-ups will be started as of September 2020 with each month hosting guest speaker.
The forum was officially closed by the founder of Digital Shelter Mr Abdifatah who thanked panelists and audiences for their active participation and contribution. It was unanimously agreed that there is need for more bigger platforms like this with larger audiences in Somalia to unpack these pressing issues such as digital rights, digital inclusion and internet freedom.