Somalia has an extremely rich culture and history of communication that has continued to inform and shape contemporary patterns of information exchange. The common greeting when meeting someone is ‘what’s the news?’, reflecting the importance of accurate information required for survival by Somali nomads who continue to traverse their livestock across inhospitable and dry land. Somalia is often referred to as a ‘nation of poets’ or a region where poets are “more important than politicians” (Staff 2012). Poetry has a long legacy of being an integral part of conflict and peacemaking. Poets are regarded as trusted elder and arbiters of disputes. While their influence has waned, in some respects, after decades of conflict and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as promoted by al Shabaab, there have been efforts to counter this and revive their influence as a key part of Somali culture and identity essential for post-conflict reconstruction.
Somali did not have a written script until the 1970s and literacy has remained low (currently estimated at 37.8 percent with a significant discrepancy between men-49.7 percent and women- 25.8 percent) which affects modes of news consumption (Borgen Project 2018). Radio remains highly popular and accessible but radio also has a complicated history as it has long been involved in conflict. Warlord radios (where parties to the conflict would not only have militia but also a local radio) proliferated in the 1990s and were an active contributor to violence (Stremlau, Fantini and Osman 2016). Poets, religious leaders and elders would often be broadcast on radio, frequently advocating for a particular party in the conflict. Somalis are reported to be most interested in media reports covering religion (95.7 percent), according to a survey by the Broadcasting Board of Governors of 2013; this is closely followed by health (94.8 percent), arts and culture (83 percent), and education (81.6 percent). Different media outlets tend to have different credibility depending on the population. The BBC Somali Service, for example, has historically been heavily criticised in Somaliland for a perceived bias towards the South. Other outlets, including newspapers, that might be popular in Somaliland are regarded with scepticism in the South. And within regions media are often highly polarised and politicised, making it difficult to generalise about which media are trusted. Even UN-funded radios such as Radio Bar Kulan have been seen by some as very biased, or Radio Mogadishu which has had paid programming by the US State Dept on ‘anti-extremism’ and promoting moderate voices.
Communication by religious and community leaders (who often share roles- as ‘elders’ are frequently religious leaders, poets or other members of influential standing in communities) has also had a complex role in the conflict and as such, it is difficult generalize about how trusted or accurate the information they provide might be. Al Shabaab, which at times has been aligned with al Qaeda and has roots in Wahhabi Islam, has often been at odds with Somalia’s largely Sunni population and strong Islamic traditions including history of Sufism. There has also been a dramatic increase of funding and support for Islamic cultural institutions and schools by countries, such as Saudi Arabia, supporting Wahhabi Islam. This has challenged and transformed all aspects of traditional Somali society from dress (particularly for women) to education. The acceptance of what is often seen as a ‘foreign’ religious influence varies (Plaut 2017). Traditional religious leaders do remain very credible and are often called upon to resolve conflicts and mediate disputes. There have also been efforts to co-opt or engage such traditional leaders as part of national and international efforts of statebuilding and peacemaking and to support efforts to communicate these processes (see, for example, religious programming on state run stations such as Radio Mogadishu and Radio Bar Kulan sponsored by the African Union/United Nations).