SOMALIA: Journalists under fire
Jaffer Mohamed Kukay, one of many Somali journalists in exile (file photo)
NAIROBI, 21 April 2010 (IRIN) - There are few countries in the world more dangerous to be a journalist than Somalia, where nine were killed in 2009, and 22 since 2005.
Only Iraq ranks higher on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index
a list of countries where murders of media professionals are frequent and are not investigated.
Faced with constant threats and intimidation, many Somali journalists
have fled into exile; those that remain live in constant fear of attack. There is a widespread concern the country’s relatively new free press could soon vanish altogether.
Independent media only emerged in Somalia after President Siyad Barre’s government collapsed amid civil war in 1991, putting an end to state control of news.
"In the beginning it was if we have been liberated: you could write and say what you wanted without worrying about the government arresting you," said Mohamed Abdulkadir, a veteran journalist who launched a newspaper when Barre fell.
Abdulkadir said journalists were not targeted in the early years of the civil war. "No one threatened or harassed us. But now things have changed."
"The worst abuses began in 2006,” he said, explaining this was the year Islamists in the form of the Union of Islamic Courts seized power in Mogadishu, prompting Ethiopia to send in troops to back the ousted transitional government.
Daud Abdi Daud, who heads an organization that fights for the rights of journalists and is currently based in Nairobi, said: "Since 2005, 22 journalists and people from the media have been killed in Somalia; in 2009 alone nine journalists were killed."
He said more than 150 Somali journalists were currently in exile. "Those left in Mogadishu are in hiding."
Omar Faruk Osman, a journalist based in Mogadishu, has been arrested, intimidated and harassed more times than he cares to remember - for doing his job.
Osman, the secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUJOS), and the president of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), told IRIN: "I have been arrested in Belet-Weyn, Jowhar, and three times in Mogadishu. Being arrested has almost become part of a reporter's life in Somalia but now we are being killed because of our profession."
He said this was the reason why many others were in exile. "They did not choose to be in exile; they have been forced into it."
Media outlets closed
As fear of an all out war between the internationally-backed troops of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Islamist insurgents grows, so does the pressure on journalists to take sides.
|The real heroes are those still in Mogadishu under the gun, but working
On 3 April, Hizbul-Islam, one of the most prominent insurgent groups, ordered Mogadishu radio stations to stop playing music
. Many complied. The TFG reacted by ordering the four stations based in the area it controls to stop broadcasting altogether.
Although it quickly rescinded the move, journalists were left feeling squeezed.
"We are getting it from both sides. All sides want to use the media as their mouthpiece." said Faruk.
The insurgents’ attitude is: "You are either with us or against us. But we are with the people and our job is to report what is happening not what one side wants," he said.
Osman said important gains made during the past 20 years by the private and independent and free media "is on the verge of being lost" as Islamists have closed down most media outlets in the southern areas they control.
The Mogadishu media is under assault from all sides, he added, calling on the international community to show support and solidarity with the media. "Up to now all we have seen is lip service."
He said it is to the credit of a few brave journalists still in the city that the media is still operating. "The real heroes are those still in Mogadishu under the gun, but working."
Ali Sheikh Yassin, deputy chairman of the Mogadishu-based Elman Human Rights Organization (EHRO), told IRIN that journalists were in even "more danger now than at any time in the past".
"In the past they used to be warned but now they are just killed," Yassin said.
"Unfortunately, many of the radio stations will not be able to operate. The current environment is very dangerous. There is a real possibility that private, independent media will cease to exist," said Yassin.
"There will be no one to report the daily atrocities and the humanitarian crisis their [insurgents’] activities create,” he added, noting that parties to the conflict would welcome the added impunity.
"Without the independent media and the brave journalists, no one would know about the suffering of the Somali people and what is really happening to them."