In a country that has spent most of its time since independence engaged in warfare – most often with itself – it's no surprise Somalia's media is weak and journalists under attack. Many journalists have fled into exile, and those that remain live in fear. They also have to negotiate being persecuted on two fronts – by Islamists and the government. By AY MOHAMED.
Somalia is, unquestionably, one of the countries in the world where it is most dangerous to be a journalist. In 2010 it ranked 161st (out of 178) in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and more than 20 journalists were killed between 2005 and 2010. The situation of journalists working in Somalia is deteriorating day by day. Since late 2006, dozens of Somali journalists have either been killed, abducted, threatened or forced into exile owing to the ongoing fighting.
Those who've paid with their lives include well-known journalists Mahad Ahmed, Elmi, Ali Iman, Sharmarke, Muqtar Mohamed Hirabe, Sheik Nur Abkay, and many others. No one knows for sure the reasons behind these murders, but most people believe that the killings relate to the journalists' professional activities.
This situation is far from surprising, since the country has had a torrid time over the last 40 years. In 1969, president Abdi Rashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated and the army seized power. Major-general Mohamed Siad Barre became president, ruling until he was overthrown in 1991. His departure left Somalia in the hands of a number of clan-based guerrilla groups, none of which trusted each other, and between in 1991 and 2000, Somalia had no working government. A fragile parliamentary government was established in 2000, but it expired in 2003 without establishing control of the country. In 2004, a new transitional parliament was instituted and elected a president.
The media was muzzled during Barre's regime, and most of the current media houses were established after the collapse of Somali central government in 1991. In late 2007, the transitional federal government passed a media law [http://www.article19.org/pdfs/laws/somalia-media-law.pdf]. This isn't the time to dissect the law detail (although Free Africa Media certainly commits to do so in a later article), but the section regarding media freedom gives a general idea of the restrictions under which Somali journalists operate, not to mention the doublespeak with which they have to contend.
Article 2: Freedom of the Media
- The media is free to disseminate information and data while coping with the laws regulating it and the state laws.
- Freedom of Expression and ideas is guaranteed by the transitional Federal charter of the Somali government as depicted in article 20 section 1 and Universal Declaration of human Rights (UDHR), and the international treaties as well as the regional and global conventions of which Somalia is a member.
- The media cannot be censored and cannot be compelled to publicise information complimentary neither to the government nor to the opposition.
Despite the difficult situation, there are several media organisations that attempt to survive in Somalia. Of the different media platforms, radio has the largest audiences in the country. The biggest radio stations are: Radio Muqdisho, owned and controlled by the government; and the independent, privately-owned Radio Shabelle, owned by individuals. Radio Banadir, Simba Radio, Radio Danan, Radio Voice of Peace and Radio Hamar are also managed by individuals, but their locations are in Islamist areas. The Islamists use IQK Radio for broadcasting their propaganda against the Somali government. The Islamists have also taken over major independent radio stations, as well as banning playing music on those that remain, including Radio Banadir, Radio Simba and Radio Hamar.
Harassment and intimidation of journalists have increased over the last few years and Somali journalists are being prevented from informing the local population about daily violence. The situation has become especially difficult owing to the lack of security and stability, not to mention escalating fighting in the country. The Islamists seem intent on persecuting the journalists, being particularly nasty to those who don't operate in their areas, but the government also plays a role in intimidating journalists.
Some journalists have suspended their work for security reasons. Faced with the threat of human rights abuses, including violations of their rights to life, security of person and freedom from arbitrary detention, many have been forced into exile. Journalists have been systematically prevented from carrying out their work and providing information to the public by parties to the conflict.
A Somali journalist in exile, who prefers not to be named, says that when he lived in Somalia he received threatening telephone calls at all times of the day and night. “It was a part of my life,” he says. This is a far from unusual story. Faced with constant threats and intimidation, those Somali journalists that remain in the country live in constant fear of attack.
There are currently more than 150 Somali journalists in exile – most of them from Mogadishu. Many of them don't have any work, although a few continue their journalism activities in diaspora. Somali journalists in exile have found it difficult to obtain tangible assistance from international organisations, because there is no trustworthy organisation through which to channel support. After realising this obstacle, veteran Somali journalists set up the Federation of Somali Journalists and the Somali Journalists Association Network in 2010. The two organisations aim to improve the situation of Somali journalists, both in and out of the country.
Although there are more than 40 media houses and numerous journalists in Somalia, most of them are not professionals, which means the journalism is of a poor quality. This needs to be addressed if the media is to play a role in reconciliation and returning law and order to Somalia. The Somali journalists who remain in the country face inhuman challenges from the warring groups – the Islamists and the government – both of whom oppress the press and send intimidatory messages to them. As a result, many journalists don't have the confidence to continue their work.
Journalists in Somalia, as well as abroad, need protection and moral support from the international community. The first step to achieving this is for Somali journalists to become more aware of their colleagues' experiences, as well as working together to access support from organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. FAM
Update: Two Somali journalists were wounded by a mortar fire on Monday 16 February. According to a local reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Al Shabab insurgents were responsible. Read the full story on the Somali Journalists blog.
AY Mohamed is a Somali journalist, who has lived in Uganda since 2008. He has worked for several different media platforms in Somalia. From 2002 to 2007 he was director of the Hiran Journalist Club – a local organisation for the promotion of journalism and human rights.
Photo: Somali Islamist fighters from the Islamic Party pose for the media in southern Mogadishu's Wardhigley neighborhood May 10, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Faruk
The text of this article by Free African Media is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Note that this does not include photographs or images, which may be encumbered by copyright. For more information, see our reuse page.