REVEALED: Villa Somalia officials who bribed media, threatened journalists to censor coverage

MOGADISHU, Somalia – On Thursday Amnesty International released its report on the violations committed against freedom of expression in Somalia detailing how killings of journalists, corruption and censorship through intimidation besieged the media freedom in the horn of African country.

The report ,“We live in perpetual fear”, the organization documents dramatic deterioration in the right to freedom of expression and media freedom since President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ took office in February 2017. Journalists contend with targeted attacks from both Al-Shabaab and government security forces, increased censorship and arbitrary arrests, forcing eight to flee the country.

One former media director told Amnesty International “I used to get a phone call from the official at the Office of the President and would meet with him at a hotel and collect the cash from him. He never allowed to deposit the money in my bank account.”

“The quest for a positive image has led the authorities in Somalia to embrace repressive tactics that fly in the face of international human rights standards. The authorities have an obligation to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, information, and media freedom,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa said during the launch of the report in Nairobi on Thursday.

ALI NUR SALAD, OFFICE OF SOMALI PM

On late March, 2018, a Somali Cable TV reporter filed a TV piece uncovering new investigation into behavior of power abuse by the Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire. The report immediately irked the office of the Prime Minister prompting the Director of Communications, Ali Nur Salad to call the TV manager and threaten with tough consequences should his TV retracts from the report. Mr. Ali Nur Salad Hassan, himself a former journalist, further demanded the journalist who covered the story be fired. The report was removed from a Youtube channel associated to the TV.

“We did not have any other option. We removed the story from our Youtube and made a forced apology. We also fired the reporter for covering that story as demanded by the Office of the Prime Minister,” a senior journalist who works for the TV told Horn Observer.

Another journalist who currently works at the state-owned SNTV as a senior news editor told Horn Observer that Director of Communications of the Office of the Prime Minister, Ali Nur Salad would call media bosses-mostly TV outlets- and demand a positive coverage whenever there is a function where PM Khaire would involve.

“He used to pay about USD2,000 to each TV station every month for positive coverage. Some TV outlets would receive about USD5,000 because of their geographic coverage capacity or due to their many viewers,” this journalist told Horn Observer in anonymity condition due to for fear of his safety.

The directors who used to receive this money said the payment was done in cash at the end of every month to avoid being detected.

Three other journalists interviewed by Horn Observer also spoke about how Ali Nur Salad would use force of threat and intimidation with total impunity to stop the journalists and media directors to negatively write or speak about the Prime Minister or even to force them not to publish critical stories, particularly those related to security or corruption.

Ali Nur Salad Hassan knows all the journalists because he used to work for the BBC Somali in Mogadishu, as well as Universal TV and Sky News Arabic, according to his profile published on the OPM’s website.

“From that experience he has all contacts of journalists and media directors. Whenever he wants to threaten a journalist he calls the journalist and tells to stop any critical reporting,” a female TV journalist based in Mogadishu who knows Ali Nur Salad said “Early in 2019, one day, I was at the Office of the PM to cover a story about a visiting delegation. The journalists complained about the delay of the press conference which we were to cover. Then Ali Nur Salad came to us and aggressively told us that if we complain he will call our directors and all of us will be fired because he pays the directors of the media houses.”

“It was like he has a total power to do whatever he wants with impunity. He was happy to threaten journalists,” the female TV reporter adds.

Abdulaziz Billow, a TV correspondent for China Global Television Network based in Mogadishu has said he never expected that a government official would assault him and his cameraman at an evening of Somali Independence Day in 2019 reception at the Prime Minister’s residence in Mogadishu. He has been threatened and harrassed “time and again” by the government, but Billow told the Mail and Guardian that the manhandling at the celebration was “on another level.”

A colleague of journalist Billow told Horn Observer that his colleague has previously refused to be paid with bribes by Mr. Ali Nur Salad and that Billow was attacked “so that he can feel pressure and bow to their demands of making propaganda for the government”.

ABDINUR MOHAMED AHMED, OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT

According to the Amnesty International’s report, Officials at the Office of Somalia President reportedly paid monthly bribes to some media owners and directors not to publish “unfavourable” stories.

Journalists in Mogadishu and staff at the Ministry of Information told Horn Observer that the Director of Communications of the Office of Somali President, Mr. Abdinur Mohamed Ahmed, a Pakistan-educated soft spoken man started to pressure media and journalists following a public outcry against the illegal extradition of former Somali military colonel Abdikarim Muse Qalbi-Dhagax who was detained and extradited to Ethiopia in August 2017.

Abdinur has joined president Farmajo’s election campaign team in late 2016 after resigning from Internews, an international U.S-based NGO that trained Somali journalists.

“Someone like him is an asset for Villa Somalia as he has links to the media. Unfortunately he has employed extraordinary tactics against the free media. Mr. Abdinur not only bribed media bosses but also used his state power to intimidate, harass and even embarrass the critical journalists,” an official at the Ministry of Information who said they did not agree to these tactics has told Horn Observer.

“Abdirahman” is a former local TV in Mogadishu who admitted that his TV had unwritten contract to receive bribes from the Office of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo in return for positively covering the president and his office.

“This included killing any story that would criticize the president and his government. We would also create positive stories to depict that president Farmaajo is a good president even if it is not true,” Abdirahman who agreed his initial to be used for this report said.

In addition, Mr. Abdinur deliberately released members of the security forces who brutally  attacked journalists  several times and he himself admitted in several facebook posts that the culprits have been arrested. But the story of every culprit finishes there and later released without being punished for their crimes, allowing total impunity.

In its findings, Amnesty International said the Director of Communications of Villa Somalia, Abdinur Mohamed Ahmed denied these allegations without providing a single evidence. Mr. Ali Nur Salad, the Director of Communications of the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to our reporter when contacted for comment.

Source: Horn Observer

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