While Somalia’s recent decision to spare TikTok and Telegram from a ban offers a momentary relief, blocking the platforms remains on the table. Under the pretext of battling “misleading news and immoral content,” such a move could deprive Somali citizens of accessing digital services, shrink the space for freedom of expression, and impact the livelihood of those who rely on them.
On August 20, TikTok and Telegram users in Somalia were surprised by the Ministry of Communications and Technology’s decision to ban the two applications. In a statement, the ministry ordered 14 local internet service providers to block three applications: TikTok, Telegram, and 1xBet, giving them four days to implement the decision.
According to a statement by the Ministry, the applications “promote the propaganda of extremist organizations and publish clips to mislead public opinion,” and they “spread obscenity and debauchery.”
The sudden decision angered many Somalis, especially TikTok pioneers, who use the famous platform to create content and make money. “This was the category most affected by the ban decision,” according to a specialist in the digital field, Ali Mohamed, in an interview with SMEX.
Analysts and human rights defenders believe other reasons prompted the government’s blocking of these platforms. Beyond the justification in the official statement, the government may have been threatened by growing criticism targeting the state’s performance and the proliferation of opposing opinions on social media.
TikTok is widely used in Somalia and, over the past years, has become a haven for activists and opponents who publish photos and other visual footage of demonstrators. The Mogadishu protests on August 20 are a prime example of this.
“The volume of images posted on social networking sites such as TikTok angered the Somali authorities, which is why they proposed banning these digital platforms,” digital activist Mohamed Abdi told SMEX.
In addition, it seems that TikTokers’ satirical approach to political speeches, such as those made by the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, also agitated the state, especially since these videos were widely shared and reposted.
This is not the first time that the Somali authorities have blocked websites and digital platforms, having already decided in 2015 to block about 35 news sites and accounts on social media under the pretext of “spreading propaganda for extremist organizations in Somalia.”
Tension between internet providers and the Somali government
Internet service providers did not respond to the Somali government’s order to block TikTok and Telegram, as though they were not implicated in the matter.
Most of the internet service providers in Somalia are private commercial companies that connect Somalia with submarine internet cables and then deliver the network to homes and mobile phones. At the same time, the Somali government does not have any public telecommunications companies.
In addition, most companies that provide internet services are located in areas not controlled by the Federal Government but by a semi-autonomous local government, which explains why these companies were indifferent to the decision issued by Mogadishu.
In a similar challenge to the government’s decision, some companies, such as Golis and Somtel, made online announcements inviting followers to join their new TikTok accounts. The decision to block the apps turned into a political dispute between the federal Somali government and local governments.
Somalia is made up of five local governments: Puntland, Jubaland, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and the South West State of Somalia, in addition to Somaliland (the Republic of Somaliland), which declared its secession from Somalia without international recognition. These local governments are subordinate to the federal state, headquartered in Mogadishu, but have semi-independent autonomy.
For example, the unilaterally declared republic of Somaliland announced its categorical rejection of the decision of the Somali government, claiming that the decision does not belong to it and cannot be applied in its regions. At a press conference, the semi-independent Puntland government also opposed the Somali government’s request to block internet companies operating in Puntland regions.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Communications and Technology in the Mogadishu government, Jama Hassan Khalif, responded to the opposition of both Somaliland and Puntland in a televised session, saying: “The decision of the Somali government will be applied in all regions of Puntland and Somaliland and this is something that must be implemented.” However, the decision was not implemented.
Somali parliament enters the debate
After Mogadishu’s Minister of Communications and Technology, Jama Hassan Khalif doubled down on his intention to ban TikTok and Telegram, the Somali Parliament’s Communications Committee summoned the minister for questioning. The purpose was to inquire and hold him accountable for the ministry’s actions, including decisions made without consulting Parliament. This has reignited tensions between the Parliament and the Ministry.
“Legal decisions must comply with the ministry’s regulations and not violate any of the constitutional provisions that safeguard freedom of expression, as stipulated in Article 18 of the Somali constitution,” explains legal expert Mohamed Yusuf, speaking to SMEX.
Regarding the Minister of Communications’ decision to block the apps, legal analyst Fareh Gidi clarified that such an action should typically follow a specific legal process. “It needs to be discussed in Cabinet sessions, transformed into a draft law, reviewed and amended, and sent to Parliament for ratification. Only then can it become a legally enforceable measure, provided it aligns with the Constitution.”
In a private interview, the Somali government’s attorney general, Mr. Musa Ahmed, explained to SMEX that the minister can propose a draft law, which can eventually become enforceable. However, this process requires unanimous approval from the Council of Ministers. He also emphasizes that any decision to ban or block something becomes a legal article if approved and remains unchallenged by the Constitutional Court.
Modern technology blocked in many Somali regions
The debate rages within the Somali government about the feasibility of blocking applications in areas it controls. In contrast, large areas of southern Somalia still can’t access the internet, smartphones, and modern technology of all kinds.
Since 2014, the Al-Qaeda-linked Somali “Al-Shabaab” has prevented citizens in its control areas from using smartphones and all digital devices. An expert in the field of digital security, who preferred to remain anonymous, believes that “the reason behind the blocking of the internet and smartphones lies in the fears of the group about the possibility of spying on its members and the whereabouts of its leaders wanted by the Somali government, using smart devices for eavesdropping and surveillance.”
The percentage of internet users in Somalia is the lowest compared to other countries in the Arab region, with the internet penetration rate in Somalia reaching 9.8% of the country’s total population in 2023. The number of active mobile phones does not exceed 7.99 million for a population of more than 17 million people.
In addition, Somalia suffers from poor internet speed across the country. Significant differences exist between the speed users obtain in large cities and others in farther areas.
The average internet speed in smartphones is about 11.65 Mbps, and the speed of a fixed internet connection is about 8.34 Mbps, according to the report by Okla, a company specializing in tracking worldwide internet speeds.
Angry public reaction
Many TikTok and Telegram users rejected the government’s decision, calling it “hasty and irresponsible.” Bilaal Bulshaawi, a TikTok celebrity in Mogadishu, said in an interview with SMEX: “I have been using TikTok for five years, and it has made me a Mogadishu celebrity, and the platform has become my only source of livelihood as I earn enough money every month to meet my needs.”
In turn, Hafsa Halkas, one of the most prominent TikTok celebrities in the country, told SMEX that profit from TikTok is her only source of livelihood.
Most Somali youth are unemployed, so many turn to digital platforms such as TikTok as a source of income. In fact, there is no specific statistic for platform users in Somalia, but initial estimates indicate about 10 million people.