The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Somalia successfully organized the first-ever National Forum on Access to Information. This important event took place in Mogadishu on September 28, 2023, with a focus on the theme “Realising Access to Information in Somalia.”
More than 60 distinguished participants, including government officials, media professionals, civil society representatives, and international partners, gathered to promote citizens' fundamental right to access information and address the multifaceted challenges posed by the digital age. This significant gathering coincided with the International Day of Universal Access to Information, further underscoring its importance in fostering an informed and participatory society in Somalia, while promoting democratic governance and inclusive decision-making processes.
The active engagement of Somalia's international partners greatly impacted the forum. Their valuable expertise and perspectives enriched the discussions, encouraging collaboration among all Somali stakeholders present and emphasizing the transformation of access to information from a theoretical concept to a constitutionally protected right accessible to every citizen.
During the forum, stakeholders unanimously adopted a declaration urging the federal government to prioritize the drafting and enactment of comprehensive Access to Information Legislation, recognizing it as a matter of urgent national importance. This legislation, aligned with African and international standards, would demonstrate the government's unwavering commitment to upholding its citizens' constitutional right to access information. The declaration also acknowledged the critical and complementing roles played by the media and civil society in effectively realizing access to information for the benefit of all.
Secretary General of NUSOJ, Omar Faruk Osman, warmly welcomed the participants, highlighting the meaningful role of access to information in Somalia's democratic transition. He strongly stressed that access to information serves as the foundation of a thriving democracy, with the media acting as a vital guardian of this fundamental right. “In our collective pursuit of national progress, we are united in acknowledging the constitutional right to access information, which regrettably remained overlooked by previous governments since 2012. Let us prioritize the tangible realization of this right, serving as a vital milestone on our path to fostering democratic ideals,” he passionately stated.
The United States Embassy's Charge D'Affaires Mr Shane Dixon expressed their unwavering support for the forum, stating, “The United States is proud to support this initiative led by the National Union of Somali Journalists. We strongly value media freedom as an essential element of democratic governance. Journalists play an indispensable role in this endeavour, and it is crucial that they are allowed to carry out their duties without fear of imprisonment, repression, or any form of intimidation.”
The top U.S. diplomat in Somalia added, “In a nation that has faced its share of challenges, the significance of fostering a free and professional press environment cannot be overstated. It is inspiring to see Somalia’s transformative journey as it recaptures its future from those that fear positive change, progress, and democracy. Initiatives like today’s forum are pivotal in shaping a prosperous society.”
In his national message to the forum, Prime Minister of Somalia Hamza Abdi Barre declared, “In our pursuit of the significance of accessing information, the government is committed to promoting the availability of true and transparent information that is not concealed from the Somali citizenry. This is our mission, and we strongly believe that accessing information is synonymous with seeking valuable advice.” The Prime Minister assured the participants that access to information is a constitutional right that must be realized in Somalia, and his government fully supports this cause.
Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Daud Aweis Jama, further affirmed the government's unwavering commitment to enact access to information legislation, addressing the challenges faced by the media, civil society, and the government. He emphasized the need to bolster efforts in this regard and further strengthen collaboration among these stakeholders. Additionally, he underscored the government's determination to overcome obstacles and ensure that the public has the right to access accurate and comprehensive information across various platforms.
The British Ambassador to Somalia, Mike Nithavrianakis, delivered a keynote address at the forum, where he stressed the importance of national discussions involving the government, media, and civil society. He emphasized that these discussions are vital for promoting media freedom and universal access to information, a cause that the UK government fully supports. The Ambassador stated, “It is only with respect for media freedom and universal access to information that we can together build a more secure, democratic Somalia.”
In his inaugural speech, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Ali Mohamed Omar, emphasized the crucial role of access to information in building a robust and dynamic democracy. He highlighted its particular relevance in emerging democratic nations, such as Somalia, recovering from conflicts. He underscored that access to information is a fundamental human right, allowing individuals to make informed decisions, hold governments accountable, and fully participate in society.
Prominent speakers, including Isha Dyfan, UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia; Misako Ito, UNESCO Regional Advisor for Communications; Niyi Ojuolape, UNFPA Country Representative for Somalia; and Commissioner Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, emphasized the significance of access to information in Somalia and the need for legislation aligned with Somalia's Provisional Constitution and the African Union Model Law on Access to Information.
Through productive panel discussions and debates, participants collaborated to develop a comprehensive roadmap, outlining practical steps to cultivate a robust information ecosystem in Somalia. The aim is to revolutionize discourse and practices surrounding access to information, fostering transparency, participation, and accountability within Somali society.