Somalia: Facebook “Remembering” activists while still alive

On August 4, 2022, Somali activist Naciima Abwaan Qorane woke up to find the word “Remembering” next to her name on Facebook, signaling that she had passed away.

Naciima’s account, followed by tens of thousands of people, was suspended after being classified as a “Memorialized Account,” despite her being alive and well. While the circumstances of the incident remain unclear, Naciima believes that her bold political stances against the Somali government could be the reason behind this attack, especially since it is difficult to classify someone’s Facebook account as memorialized.

Facebook adds “Remembering” to the deceased person’s profile after relatives notify them of their passing. The company requires proof of kinship and documents proving that the person has indeed passed away (such as a death certificate) or other documents, including a birth certificate, a last will, an obituary, or a memorial card, according to Facebook’s policies.

The accounts of other activists, opposition members, and journalists have also been suspended in the same manner. They all believe this was done for similar reasons: “It is regretful that the government cannot tolerate any opposing voices,” said activist and politician Cali Yare Ali, whose Facebook account was suspended several times using the same tactic. This was also the case of Fihiima Yusuf Quuje, an anti-government feminist and political activist in the (unilaterally declared) Republic of Somaliland.

SMEX contacted Facebook to enquire about the campaigns against users in Somalia, but the company failed to provide a clear answer. A source at Meta told SMEX that “Meta does not interfere with the local politics of any country, and we are committed to protecting the personal safety of users and preventing harm through our platforms, whether online or physically.”

The source did not comment on suspending accounts or on the role of the Somali authorities in exploiting Facebook’s policies to this end. “Our Community Guidelines set strict rules for preventing harassment and incitement to violence, and they include anti-hate speech policies that prohibit attacks against individuals based on characteristics such as race, religion or political opinion. Additionally, we remove any content that violates these rules,” the source added.

Facebook Complicit with the Somali Government?
Activists often accuse the Somali government implicitly and explicitly of having a role in suspending their accounts, and they do not rule out the possibility that Facebook might be complicit in these practices, whether directly or indirectly. In an exclusive statement to SMEX, Naciima affirmed that people attacked her “account in the Somali government. My account was seized at first, and I lost access to it. Later, the word ‘Remembering’ was added to my name to signal my virtual death.”

Cybersecurity expert Moussa Nour agrees, explaining that “whoever did that has significant authority and influence. A normal person cannot simply have another person’s account suspended and classified as a Memorialized Account.” Doing so requires a series of steps, including submitting a copy of the account holder’s passport, a signed death certificate, and a government-issued birth certificate, according to Nour, who stated that “this can only be done by official authorities, which is additional proof that certain parties within the government are involved.”

Naciima regained access to her account a while later with the support of technical advisors, who helped her file a complaint to Facebook and submit proof that the account “was hacked and that I am alive,” as she told SMEX. However, Facebook only responded to the complaint filed by Naciima after she “intensified the campaigns demanding access to the account.” Naciima solicited the help of a consultancy firm to submit a document proving that she is the account holder and that she is alive and well, according to an expert on the matter.

Although Naciima was reluctant to share many of the suspicious details related to the suspension of her account and how she regained access to it, it does appear that declaring people as deceased to have their accounts suspended is a growing trend, which is consistent with the statements of Ali and Fihiima.

Unconstitutional Government Decisions
On October 8, 2022, the Somali government announced that it was shutting down more than 40 digital platforms, mostly affiliated with Al-Shabaab, a militant group allegiant to Al-Qaeda. However, the government did not provide a list of these platforms. In a written statement, Deputy Minister of Information Abdul Rahman Al-Adala explained that “the goal of these measures is to prevent the spread of misinformation by Al-Shabaab among Somali people.”

In addition, the government imposed strict restrictions on the Somali press. It prohibited the coverage of any news story related to extremist groups and ordered media outlets to use terminology hostile to those groups.

In an exclusive interview with SMEX, attorney and Somali Constitution expert Farah Hassan said that “there is no legal justification for the suspension or deletion of a personal account or an account affiliated with a media outlet, especially since the Somali Constitution guarantees citizens’ freedom and protects them against attacks in many of its articles.”

For instance, Article 18 of the Somali Constitution stipulates that “Every person has the right to have and express their opinions and to receive and impart their opinion” and that “Freedom of expression includes freedom of speech and freedom of the media, including all forms of electronic and web-based media.”

In an interview with SMEX, the General Secretary of the Federation of Somali Journalists, Farah Nour, stated that “the government’s decisions to ban certain platforms in general, without any clarifications and without providing further details, is unacceptable. Such actions encourage attacks against journalists under the pretext that they violate government orders.”

Indeed, that was the case of Somali journalist and General Secretary of the Somali Journalists Syndicate Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, who was detained by the National Intelligence and Security Agency on October 11, 2022, for his statements to media outlets and his opposition to government measures. The Somali government pressed several charges against him, including opposing government decisions, incitement against the government, and undermining national security.

Mumin denied all of the charges pressed against him before the Mogadishu Court of Appeal, and he is still undergoing trial. Several international press and human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have demanded that the Somali government drop all criminal charges against Abdalle Mumin and release him immediately.

Activists and journalists in Somalia are harassed and prosecuted in many ways, including attacks on their social media accounts, as well as their arrest and detention under different charges, in total disregard of the Somali Constitution and laws. But if the Somali government is abusing the law, why are tech companies refusing to hear the voices of Somali citizens?

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Yasin Isse

Yasin is a Somali writer and journalist living in Mogadishu interested in digital rights and freedoms.