Spirits of journalists in Somalia, the most dangerous country in Africa to practice the profession, were lifted slightly this week after Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon made several auspicious announcements. The key concern on the minds of journalists in the capital, Mogadishu, is access to justice--both in terms of journalists' own court appearances and in terms of solving the many outstanding murder cases of their colleagues. Twelve journalists were killed in the line of duty last year, the worst on record, and there hasn't been a single prosecution.
After a consultative meeting February 16 with the journalist union and government officials, Shirdon announced a $50,000 public reward for information leading to the conviction of a journalist killer. "One journalist killed is one journalist too many," Shirdon said via Twitter. Authorities and journalists alike hope the offer may curb the trend of impunity; for the third consecutive year, Somalia ranked second on CPJ's Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country's population. Ahmed Ali Abukar, head of protocol and public relations in the premier's office, said he hopes the announcement will encourage those who may have information regarding journalist murders but fear retribution to be emboldened to come forward. New York Times correspondent and union leader Mohamed Ibrahim welcomed the reward offer. "We also hope it may act as a message to the killers of journalists that their chances of being identified and prosecuted are greater than before. Maybe it will act as a deterrent."
In another potentially promising step, the government on February 5 established a much-anticipated Independent Task Force on Human Rights, whose mandate includes investigating past cases of journalist murders, local journalists said. But several journalists told me they were concerned that not a single member of the media was represented in the group. "No journalist is part of the commission, even though members of civil society were appointed," said one local journalist who preferred not to be identified. The union has requested two media representatives be added to the commission, Ibrahim told me.
Hopes for more justice in the courtrooms also seemed apparent after the appeal hearing Wednesday of freelancer Abdiaziz Abdinuur. Earlier this month, Abdiaziz was sentenced to a year in jail on charges of "insulting the government" for conducting an interview with a woman who claimed she was raped by government soldiers. The interview was never published. At his initial trial, the court did not allow the defense to present several witnesses.
At the same consultation with the press, Shirdon pledged to the journalist union that Abdiaziz would receive a fair appeals trial. "After listening to your concerns, I will personally stand for making sure journalist Abdiaziz gets a fair trial in the appeals court," the premier was quoted as saying in local reports. And on Wednesday, local journalists told me, the defense was finally allowed to present documents and witnesses. Abdiaziz's lawyer also told Al Jazeera that the defense's evidence was accepted in court and that witnesses who were not heard before will be allowed to stand. The case is expected to continue on February 27. Abdiaziz remains in central prison throughout this process.
In a development that further discouraged journalists after the initial Abdiaziz verdict, police arrested and detained freelancer Daud Abdi Daud for speaking out in protest after the sentence was read in court. Daud, a journalist and secretary general of the Somali Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture organization, protested in the courtroom that journalists have the right to interview people, he told me. After that, he reportedly added that he would seek to interview the president's wife and the police arrested him. Authorities released Daud after a week and no charges were filed, local journalists told me.
Still, Somali journalists are wary. Authorities have pledged their concern in the past, and yet arbitrary detentions and killings of Somali journalists continued. "Well we shall wait and see," said one local journalist who preferred not to be named, "but so far we need less announcements and more action."