On the occasion of the International Anti-Corruption Day, commemorated annually on December 9, the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) would like to strongly emphasize that the fight against corruption cannot be won until a progressive law on citizens’ right of access to information is promulgated and applied.
A country like Somalia, which is marred by widespread corruption, continues to see almost every aspect of its society eroded. Corruption not only facilitates institutional collapse by compromising the quality, efficiency and effective execution of the mandate of officials, but it entrenches a culture of greed, misuse of public resources, mistrust between government and citizens, deprivation, endemic poverty and chronic underdevelopment. For those who are firmly committed to upholding human rights, the rule of law and social justice, the failure to contain the high levels of corruption in Somalia will continue to have a clear detrimental effect on the country by slowing down its rate of development.
Somalia has for far too long been notorious for its lack of transparency and accountability in governance at all levels of government. In the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International, Somalia remained at the bottom of the list. High levels of corruption impair the government’s ability to deliver services to its citizens and uphold and defend human rights as per the constitution. While the principles and the tenets of the constitution are clear, corruption makes a mockery of this important framework. This is evident when looking at the right of access to information in Somalia. This right is central to the realisation of all other rights; citizens who are denied information are prevented from advocating for what they are entitled to and from making informed social, economic and political decisions in their lives
Article 32 of Somalia’s Provisional Constitution states that “Every person has the right of access to information held by the state” and that the “Federal Parliament shall enact a law to ensure the right of access to information”. However, Somalia has not yet developed legislation or policy that facilitates the actualization of the right to access information in the country. The country’s current Amended Media Law 2020 contains oppressive provisions in contradiction to the constitution of Somalia and the country’s regional and international human rights obligations. This legislative gap provides an enabling environment for corruption to flourish unabated.
“Corruption thrives in secrecy, flourishing in spaces where citizens are unaware of the extent to which the falsehood being presented differs from what legally and legislatively should be the case,” says Omar Faruk Osman, Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). “Therefore, providing a framework to ensure citizens are provided with accurate information, particularly information relating to the governance of state institutions designed for the public good, must be viewed as a strategic and sustainable way to dismantle corruption.”
NUSOJ is clear that the absence of the right of access to information law in Somalia makes it difficult for journalists to perform their professional duties and watchdog roles. It has been regular practice for Somali authorities, both at federal and state levels, to routinely disallow access to public information, fostering a sense of secrecy, and related lack of transparency within government, both at State and Federal levels. This, in turn, encourages corruption, abuse of public office, mismanagement of public funds, a culture of impunity and most egregiously, a denial of citizens’ right to know.
With corruption occurring in secret spaces, rooting it out requires bringing all activities, intentions, and consequences into the light. Reporting on corruption is therefore very important, and also very dangerous. Journalists in Somalia operate under extremely dangerous conditions, and these are enhanced when they attempt to unearth issues of corruption or misgovernance in their reports. They are often intimidated, harassed and/or arrested on criminal defamation cases using Somalia’s outdated Penal Code. Within this legislation, vaguely-worded provisions are used by authorities to deny journalists their rights to safety and access to information. This is designed to, among others, discourage the chorus of voices that campaign and champion the fight against corruption. Therefore, the continued existence of the Penal Code implicitly keeps the possibility and practice of corruption alive.
Somalia is on the path to improved governance, meaningful democracy, citizen participation, economic growth, and social development. This is evidenced by a number of important national and global processes such as the debt relief supplied by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in 2020. This has ushered in a wave of development partners willing to engage, trade with and fund Somalia as it moves towards complete re-entry onto the global stage. However, all this cannot be achieved in a vacuum and without true citizenship, i.e., the citizens accessing information, participating in their development, making input into democratic processes and holding the authorities accountable. There can be no freedom of expression in Somalia when freedom of information is bound up and strangled in outdated legislation.
On this International Anti-Corruption Day, calling for legislative changes in effect, calls for dethroning the culture of corruption in the long term. NUSOJ urges the Federal Government and the Federal Parliament to prioritise the swift enactment of Access to Information Law as the best tool to uproot corruption in Somalia and leave a lasting legacy for a transparent and accountable system of governance which the whole nation will be proud of by seeing their meaningful participation of public affairs.