In many countries where freedom of expression is a foreign concept, the biggest tool used to subdue the media is state repression. In Somalia, as in the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, journalists have to contend with the various Islamist militia factions as well. Sometimes they are seemingly arbitrarily thrown in jail, before being released without explanation. Other times they are “officially” sentenced to stay there. By AY MOHAMED.
Since 1992, 34 journalists have been killed in Somalia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This doesn't take into account journalists who die in car accidents, but only instances where deaths are work-related. In 2010 two Somali journalists were killed as a direct result of their work, Sheikh Nur Mohamed Abkey, who worked for state-run Radio Mogadishu, was gunned down near his home, and Barkhat Awale, director of Hurma community radio, was killed by a stray bullet from nearby fighting. No Somali journalists have been killed this year – so far.
Death is the most extreme example of the many dangers facing journalists in Somalia. Already this year, two journalists have been captured by militia groups, although both have been released.
On 19 February, Abdi Dhagane Eye (Abdi Yare), a well-known Somali photographer who has worked for Reuters for several years, was taken hostage by Islamist group Al Shabaab. Reports say Al Shabaab invited several journalists to a press conference about food supplies and distribution. When the journalists arrived, Abdi Dhagane was immediately seized by gunmen. Although he was released on the following day, Al Shabaab has not yet commented on his detention or the reason for it.
A similar event happened the week before involving a different Islamist faction. On 12 Feburary, Abdikar Ahmed Bulhan, a reporter at Radio Shabelle in Mogadishu, was jailed by the moderate Islamists known as Ahlu-Sunnah-Waljama. Bulhan was also released a day later, on “bail” although conditions were not specified. Speaking to Somaliweyn website immediately after his arrest, Bulhan said: “In fact, I was really treated badly. I was tortured. This is the fourth time I (have been) arrested by the forces of Ahlu-Suunah Waljama. During the first day (I was under arrest) I was not given any food, apart from water to quench my thirst. No communication was allowed.”
Somali press associations have firmly condemned the arrest of journalists working in the country and they expressed worry for their plight. “We call all warring sides in Somalia like Islamists, the Somali TFG (transitional federal government) and the semi-autonomous administrations of Puntland and Somaliland not to arrest journalists, to respect them without preconditions and to let journalists work freely in reporting the news,” said Mohammed Odowa, the secretary-general of the Somali Journalists Association Network (Sojanet).
Though Abdi Dhagane and Bulhan were not detained for long, there's no guarantee they won't be captured or “arrested” again. In late January Mohamud Abdi Jama, the editor of Somaliland independent newspaper Waheen, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, and ordered to pay a fine of $900. His crime? Defamation, and “spreading false news”. Somaliland Journalist Association chairman Mustafa Abdi Isse said the charges stemmed from a story in 2010 accusing a state electricity company manager of hiring more than 50 employees from his own clan.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Somalia is the most dangerous country in Africa in which to be a journalist. Since 2006, the muzzling of the press has increased, and Somali journalists are unable to work freely. To put it bluntly: in Somalia, no media freedom exists at all. This situation of fear automatically undermines journalists' capacity to provide information and, although many journalists choose to work in secret, others have given up their work altogether or fled into exile.
“I am very concerned about the continued killing, threats, (and arrests) faced by Somali journalists,” says one Somali refugee journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous. “The international community has to ensure that any arrangements put in place give high priority to the protection of Somali journalists. The lawlessness continues to endanger the lives of journalists and this must be reversed urgently.”
Somali’s political leaders, particularly the warring sides, have been urged to uphold the right to freedom of expression and the right of journalists to do their duties without hindrance or fear of harassment. FAM
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.
- Somali Journalist Association Network blog,
- A Somali journalist freed on bail grounds, Somaliweyn;
- A Somaliland editor sentenced to three years in prison, Committee to Protect Journalists.
Photo: Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Mansur (2nd R), spokesman of Somalia's Islamic al-Shabab, leaves a news conference after vowing to step up attacks against government soldiers and foreign troops in Mogadishu December 14, 2008. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
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