Outcry in Somalia over government decision to ban TikTok, Telegram

Somali authorities banned the platforms, citing explicit content and violent extremism but young Somalis say they are a source of livelihood for them.

Abdulahi Ahmed uses his mobile phone to watch a video on social media app TikTok, outside his home in Waberi district of Mogadishu, Somalia
Abdulahi Ahmed uses his mobile phone to watch a video on social media app TikTok, outside his home in Waberi district of Mogadishu, Somalia August 21, 2023 [Feisal Omar/Reuters]

On Sunday, Somali authorities issued an order banning access to several giant social media platforms including the video platform TikTok, messaging app Telegram, and the online betting 1xBet.

In a letter addressed to the Telecom companies, Somalia’s minister of communications and technology directed the country’s internet service providers to block access to the three platforms, citing security and moral conduct.

The directive gave internet service providers until midnight on August 24 to comply.

“You are being directed to shut the above-mentioned applications, which terrorists and immoral groups use to spread horrific content and misinformation to the public, “the statement read.

In a country where 60 percent of the population is below the age of 25 according to the World Bank, the government’s decision has sparked anger among the young content creators who have taken to social media to express discontent.

“I strongly disagree with the government’s move … the ministry can address the concerns they have raised by taking actions against the individual users instead of collective punishment,” Mursal Ahmed, a popular Somali TikTok with more than two million followers told Al Jazeera.

He said the decision came as a surprise to quite a number of them who make ends meet from TikTok revenue and now have to think of alternatives.

“I signed up to TikTok in 2018 and my livelihood depends on it since there are no job opportunities in the country. I make a minimum of $2,000 a month from advertising local business products, and that is what I use to manage my livelihood and if that is cut off, I will literally remain jobless,” the 26-year-old Mursal added.

Somali youth Asma Ali and Ikran Abdulahi Mohamed use their mobile phone to record a video on social media app TikTok, in Berta Nabada Hamarweuyne district of Mogadishu, Somalia
Somali Asma Ali and Ikran Abdulahi Mohamed use their mobile phone to record a video on social media app TikTok, in Berta Nabada Hamarweuyne district of Mogadishu, Somalia, August 21, 2023 [Feisal Omar/Reuters]

‘Explicit’ and ‘extremist’ content

The attempt to ban TikTok is not new and is not unique to Somalia.

Last October, the Somali government reportedly deactivated more than 40 platforms including Facebook, Twitter accounts and websites which it said were “terrorist accounts”.

Days before Mogadishu announced the move to shut down Chinese-owned TikTok, the parliament in neighbouring Kenya received a petition urging to prohibit the same platform.

The government cited security and moral conduct as reasons for the ban. In recent years, explicit content including sexual content was widely posted on Telegram groups has made sections of Somalia, a deeply conservative Muslim-majority country, question online safety, especially for unsupervised youths.

Also, activities of al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked armed group active in the country for years, have been posted by unknown users on TikTok and Telegram even as the Somali military has continued an offensive against the group.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, TikTok spokesperson Ragdah Alazab said the social platform has launched a safety campaign in collaboration with Somalia’s National Communications Authority in June and is hopeful about reaching a compromise soon.

“As we stand firmly against violent extremism, we have permanently removed and continue to remove the reported accounts and content depicting hateful and violent extremist behaviour,” Alazab said. “There is no place on our platform for those dedicated to spreading beliefs or propaganda that encourage violence or hate.”

“We have been in regular communication with the authorities in Somalia and we are hopeful to reach a conclusion.”

Ahmed is waiting for the outcome of that conclusion too.

“Unlike other countries, Somalia isn’t eligible for TikTok content creator fund and I was expecting the government to sit down with TikTok management and discuss it with the concern we had, but unfortunately, they seem to be ending the talents of many youths without providing an alternative,” he said.

Effect on local business

Over the years, thousands of Somalis, mainly youths have been signing up for TikTok for entertaining content and gaming.

Considering the country’s unemployment rate, which now stands at more than 35 percent, some even initiated business on social media sites and post digital marketing for their products on the platforms to access their potential customers.

Now, they are worried about what the future holds for their business.

“I shifted my entire beauty product business from physical location to TikTok marketing since its zero cost and easy access to a ready market, and the reason being is I have huge followers on TikTok which I use to digitally market my products.” Ikran Abdullahi, Mogadishu-based beauty product entrepreneur with nearly half a million followers on TikTok told Al Jazeera by phone.

“I make about $500 profit from the product I sell on TikTok every week and that is how I manage my livelihood and the decision by the government is likely to affect a promising future for many youths who have initiated their own business ideas and talent.”

The 24-year old who is upset with the decision by the government said if the government decision is implemented, she would be forced to rent a store and would likely lose hundreds of customers who have been placing their orders online.

‘Decision without due process’

In recent years, the short-form video platform – TikTok – has been gaining popularity in Somalia with senior government officials including defence minister Abdulkadir Mohamed and some members of parliament becoming influencers on it.

Some of them are worried about the decision, too.

“Any attempt to shut down any platform should have been initiated by the legislative and not the executive, and the government cannot just one day make the decision without due process and thus makes the decision by the minister ineffective,” Abdirahman Abdishakur, a Somali federal lawmaker and TikToker opposed to the decision by the government, told Al Jazeera.

“The government should come up with a policy to regulate any content shared across the social platforms that is deemed harmful and inappropriate morally,” said Abdishakur, who has 51,000 followers on the site. “They should also have a collaboration with social media companies, which I understand is possible, instead of banning.”

He added that the platforms, especially TikTok, are a welcome source of income for many content creators in Somalia since the unemployment rate remains high.

“It’s also a platform where we engage the youths and read from their mood, especially on national issues that need to be addressed,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera