Freedom of expression marks a new beginning for the Somali people

The recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mahamed Farmaajo and his formation of a new government is a welcome development for one of the world’s most beleaguered nations. Somalia has endured decades of war due to clan-based conflict and religious extremism, so the appointment of H.E Abdirahman Omar Osman to the Ministry of Information is a cause for considerable optimism among the human rights community.

After decades of civil strife the new minister Osman has declared his first priority for Somalia will be to address and promote freedom of expression issues. His inaugural address saw a commitment to the implementation of Somali Media law and Strategy, the establishment of a media council and a public service broadcaster, as well as measures to build capacity among media practitioners.

The positive developments in Somalia come against a welcome expansion of legal mechanisms, laws and policies relating to access to information and media in the region.  Kenya passed access to information legislation in August 2016 after more than 15 years of concerted campaigning and advocacy. Malawi is the most recent country to do so having passed their Access to Information Act in February 2017. Other countries in the Eastern Africa region that have access to information laws include Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The recognition and implementation of freedom of expression (FoE) rights is crucial for for two reasons. The recognition of these rights creates the potential for a foundation of trust between the government and citizenry – through building mechanisms of accountability – as well as creating a civic space where the Somali people are able to freely express their views, debate and participate in the key political processes that will determine the future of their country.

Given Somalia’s particular challenges, effective implementation of FoE will ensure that citizens are enabled to advocate for accountability and the rule of law. Somalia can also use FoE to push for the establishment of credible, transparent and accountable institutions and processes.

We know elsewhere in the world that implementation of FoE rights are vital to addressing corruption and building credible institutions. For the Somali people this becomes especially important as the country embarks on finalizing its constitution-making process: one that must be inclusive and open for Somalis to freely express their views, debate and participate in the political processes that will determine the future of their country.

Most important of all, is the imperative for the Somali government to develop legislation that both articulates and enables freedom of expression, the development of the right to information and attendant media laws. Such laws will be the bedrock of inclusive civic particpation.

The developments in Somalia in the last month provide a hopeful indication of both a recognition and commitment towards transparency and accountability in Africa.  Pan-African leadership might look to Somalia and provide further encouragement by ensuring that laws which enhance and protect the freedom to speak and the freedom to know are practiced and enhanced in line with international standards.