Somali media under siege from both government and militants

Journalists in Somalia, one of the world’s worst places to be a media worker, face relentless harassment and intimidation from local state and non-state actors, press freedom watchdogs say.

This year, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 163 out of 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index.

The RSF says Somalia “continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in Africa for media personnel”, with three more reporters killed last year and 50 in the past decade.

The federal government has been accused of stepping up its attacks on journalists to silence any media outlet or reporter who does not toe its line, an allegation the authorities deny.

Marking this year’s World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, journalists and media houses in the capital, Mogadishu, accused the government of carrying out alleged sustained attacks on press freedom in the country, with reporters having little or no recourse.

Mohamed Moalimu, the secretary general of the Federation of Somali Journalists (FESOJ), says the Horn of Africa nation “has always been a hostile environment for journalists”.

“But this year, the situation was extreme as authorities stepped up their intimidation of journalists and specially this time when our country faces the spread of the novel coronavirus,” he told the Voice of America.

Campaign groups and media watchdogs have echoed Moalimu’s concerns about the state of press freedom in the conflict-wracked nation.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on 2 May that the authorities “have been stepping up their intimidation of journalists”.

In a span of two weeks, “the authorities arbitrarily detained three journalists, accused two of various crimes, and prohibited a local radio station from broadcasting in a local dialect”, HRW said.

The organisation said Somalia’s “outdated” 1964 penal code “includes a number of vague and overly broad crimes, including criminal defamation; offending the honour and prestige of the head of state”.

A day later, on 3 May, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo tweeted that the penal code “will be reformed to ensure it is not used against journalists”.

“My administration fully supports the de-criminalisation of journalism and free expression through legal reform,” he said.

At least eight journalists have been killed since President Farmajo came to power in 2017, according to Amnesty International.

Five others died since then in Al-Shabaab attacks while two were killed by unidentified attackers, and one was shot dead by a police officer.

Arrests and attacks

Somali media organisations have said 2019 was a particularly bad year for journalists in the country.

“At least 81 journalists were physically assaulted…while on duty, while the authorities arrested 50 others,” Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, the secretary general of the Somali Journalists’ Syndicate (SJS), told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

Eighteen journalists were arrested in Somaliland and five in Puntland. Six media houses were also closed in total in 2019, according to the SJS.

Amnesty International has said there has been a “surge” in violence and intimidation against media workers under the current president.

“Somali journalists are under siege. From barely surviving explosive-wired cars to being shot, beaten up and arbitrarily arrested, journalists are working in horrifying conditions,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s Director for East Africa, said.

So far this year, one journalist has been killed: Abdiweli Ali Hassan, a freelance reporter who worked with London-based Universal TV and Mogadishu-based Radio Kulmiye.

Hassan, 25, was shot dead near his home in the town of Afgoye on 16 February, according to news reports.

A month before his death, fighters from the al-Shabaab group entered the journalist’s home “but luckily he was not at home”, Universal TV editor Abdullahi Ahmed Nur told the US-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ).

NISA’s legal threats

In recent weeks, Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) has come under scrutiny for repeatedly accusing a respected journalist of being a threat to national security.

On 2 April, NISA tweeted that it was investigating Harun Maruf, a prominent US-based VOA journalist and co-author on a book on Al-Shabab, for having “links that are a threat to national security” and accused him of engaging in actions “outside of the media code of conduct” .

Three weeks later, the agency announced on Twitter that it had completed the investigation and was handing over the file to the country’s attorney general.

The US embassy in Mogadishu, Congressman Ilhan Omar and others defended Mr Maruf, the host of The Investigative Dossier, a bi-weekly programme on VOA’s Somali service.

Other journalists have also alleged receiving threats from NISA, including former Universal TV journalist Zakariye Mohamud Timaade who told Amnesty International in February that such attacks forced him to leave Somalia.

Eighty-one journalists were targeted in 2019, Somali media organisations said.

Motives for media attacks

Somali journalists also face death at the hands of Al-Shabaab if and when they report negatively on the group’s operations.

To survive the onslaught, media workers say they have been forced to either self-censor or flee the country.

Last year alone, 12 journalists went into exile.

“Many steer clear of reporting on sensitive issues – including the armed conflict with Al-Shabaab, politicized clan fighting and the federalism process – as a means to minimize risks to personal safety,” said Human Rights Watch.

As Somalia faces a growing number of Covid-19 infections and as the country prepares for elections later this year or early 2021, the authorities must see the urgent need for the flow of information and commit to ending assaults on press freedom.

They should see journalists, not as enemies, but allies in creating an engaged citizenry.

The media plays the crucial role of empowering the voiceless among the society and creating a more transparent polity.

The Somali government should be encouraging a more professional media landscape and open public debate through the work of journalists.