Digital Shelter

Making the digital space in Somalia Open and Inclusive

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On 27th January 2022, Digital Shelter hosted a stakeholder dialogue on promoting an open and inclusive digital space in Somalia. The event brought together digital rights activists, social media influencers, thought leaders, tech activists, ICT experts, media practitioners, civil society representatives as well as senior government officials. The event provided an opportunity for  dialogue and shared reflection between participants on how government institutions, digital rights and civil society organizations on creating a digital civic space that is open and inclusive.  Digital technologies are transforming economies, lives and all sectors. Experience shows that growth and change in the digital age are faster and more pervasive than ever before, affecting more people at greater speed than was possible with previous generations of technology.

Apart from connecting people who are not yet connected, it is also important that digital platforms build trust, and be accountable and transparent. Concerns were expressed regarding the rise in hate speech and violent content, the infodemic, the increase in online exploitation, the lapse in implementing privacy and data protection rules related, digital rights violation, internet shutdowns, the growing market power of tech companies that is affecting the right to internet access and freedom of expression; and the safety, security, and privacy of digital rights in Somalia. In addition, the online space can also be very hostile, especially whenever political debates become extremely polarized. For many people especially dissenting voices, human rights defenders, journalists, and women, online spaces are dangerous, filled with attacks and harassment and often monitored and censored by State authorities.

The forum addressed five main issues.

  • The current state of the civic space in Somalia
  • Why Misinformation is so easily propagated on social media platforms
  • How the government can leverage new technologies to promote inclusive participation and protection of the online civic space
  • Reflection on the opportunities and risks that the Covid-19 pandemic has generated and the effect it has on the online civic space in Somalia
  • The need for strategic policy documents that recognizes the need to protect online civic space while addressing the challenges of the growing hate speech trend.

The panelists were: –

  1. Zakria Ismail:Head of ICT and e-Governance Dept, Ministry Communications & Technology (MoCT)
  2. Sumaya Abdirashid: Researcher/Communication strategist and the Co-founder of Scala Firm
  3. Sadam Abdi: Social media influencer and Graduate of Korean Development Institute (KDI)

Miss Sumaya expressed concerns over the approach adopted by digital platforms to regulate online content, which may lead to overregulation and limit freedom of expression. To address the issue related to hate speech and misinformation, Sumaya believes in trying to make internet companies provide greater transparency. Additionally, more transparency is required related to expected outcomes. There is a need to stop looking at issues related to content moderation and listen to voices from across the society.

To tackle existing challenges, Mr. Zakarie stated that Somalia needs to enhance safety, build trust and tailor platforms to ensure they contribute to the ecosystem meaningfully and responsibly.

The need to engage civil society groups was emphasised by Mr. Sadam. He stated that open online civic space was crucial since the offline is already closed. He gave examples of how CSOs are being excluded from the ongoing elections and have been targeted for reporting irregularities and fraud of the parliamentary elections in Somalia.

“Part of the state building process is building inclusive society that has enabling environment where human rights defenders, CSOs and media outlets can hold the leaders accountable even if it’s using digital platforms but what we are seeing in Somalia right now is complete lockdown of our civic space” he said.

Miss Sumaya discussed how increased claims to online space can result in a push back against claims to women’s spaces. She pointed to gaps in policies in digital private spaces, and the need to view it as a structural power problem. Such an approach informs policy initiatives that understands spacial fluidity between offline and online spaces. This was picked up by other speakers in the discussion, that laws and policies need to cover and be interpreted to cover online and not only physical spaces.

As the panel discussion was coming to an end, the need for strong government representation in the digital space became apparent. Speaker after speaker bemoaned the lack of substantial government involvement in policy formulation. A notion that was perhaps best captured by Mr. Sadam when he said, “the government should play its role in ensuring that internet access is inclusive and addresses barriers to affordability and accessibility for underrepresented communities and geographically isolated regions. Additionally, understand gender-specific challenges of online engagement and taking into account privacy of individuals, and assessing existing data on online harassment via consultation and research.”

The event came to an end with the following suggestions:

  • Civil society actors need to be able to operate safely online. This includes strengthening the digital resilience of civil society, employing strategies to recognise and respond to digital threats, creating support networks and ensuring that there is zero risk involved for all parties in the collection of personal data.
  • When applying digital solutions for lobbying and advocacy goals, local civil society and individuals should participate in the design of the technology to ensure digital tools are accessible, safe and suit the needs of the users.
  • Civil society actors have a critical role to play in ensuring an inclusive and human rights-based approach in the development and use of technology, online platforms and policy, and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms online and offline.
  • Introduce policies to tackle disinformation and misuse of social media platforms and implement government programs that build capacities of citizens to increase media literacy.
  • Establish platform procedures to prevent and address online harassment. Platforms should work with governments, independent experts and civil society to identify and flag harmful content and ensure laws appropriately deal with online gender-based violence including online harassment, abuse, impersonation, catfishing, doxxing, revenge porn, and violence.
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