Attacks on the Press 2001: Somalia

The so-called failed state syndrome hampered efforts to reunite Somalia, wracked by inter-clan warfare since 1991. Although the year began with news that the economy was slowly recovering, it ended with a bleak United Nations assessment that Somalia was on the brink of an economic collapse unmatched in its modern history.

The grim forecast was issued a month after the United States reportedly started contemplating an attack against the desert nation, which is alleged to harbor Al Qaeda terrorists. American suspicions have focused mostly on the Somali-based Islamist organization Al-Ittihad al-Islami. Somalia’s Transitional National Government (TNG), whose control does not extend beyond the capital, Mogadishu, has strenuously denied any link with terrorists.

News of U.S. military activities in the region has also renewed worldwide media interest in Somalia. Ironically, this comes just a few months after the U.N. Security Council voted to exempt reporters and aid workers in Somalia from wearing flak jackets and helmets, nine years after it imposed the requirement.

Somali journalists, caught in the middle, struggled to report objectively on the country’s violent clan politics and on allegations of Islamist terror cells in their midst. They also grappled with mounting insecurities about the future of journalism in the country.

In November, Somalia lost most of its communication links with the outside world when the U.S. government shut down the Al-Barakaat banking and telecommunications firm for its alleged part in bin Laden’s terrorist network. Al Barakaat Communications was Somalia’s largest employer until its abrupt demise. It had a telephone and Internet subscriber base of 45,000, including the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland in the northeast and the self-declared republic of Somaliland in the northwest.

On January 13, Abdirihman Nur Mohamed Diinar, a reporter for the popular radio and television station HornAfrik, was appointed press secretary to President Abdiqassim Salad Hassan.

On February 17, President Hassan opened the second session of the Transitional National Assembly before a large audience of local reporters. However, the journalists were only allowed to cover the opening and closing sessions. A parliamentary spokesperson conducted press briefings on the other sessions.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, a Libyan delegation visited Mogadishu to assess the feasibility of setting up a radio and television station for the TNG, twenty years after state-run Somali Radio and Television was destroyed in the civil war.

The plans bore fruit on August 23, when the TNG launched Radio Mogadishu-Voice of the Somali Republic, Mogadishu’s sixth news radio station. Today, an estimated two-dozen privately owned radio and television outlets operate in Somalia. Some are clan-based, and one operates clandestinely.

Political and media life in Somaliland was relatively uneventful last year. Puntland, on the other hand, was by far the most volatile region of Somalia. On February 6, Puntland authorities freed Abdishakuur Yusuf Ali, editor of the newspaper War-Ogaal. Ali was arrested on February 2, allegedly for supporting the Mogadishu government, along with Ahmed Kismaayo, editor of Riyaq. At year’s end, there was still no confirmation of Kismaayo’s release.

While still trampling on reporters’ rights, the Puntland authorities nevertheless allowed the region’s first private FM radio station to begin broadcasting on June 20. Officials at the station later announced plans to open a television station in October (CPJ could not verify the launch of the TV station due to communications problems following the demise of Al Barakaat).

In early July, a messy power struggle erupted between Puntland president Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, who refused to leave office at the end of his term, and Chief Justice Yusuf Haji Nur, who claimed to be the “legitimate authority” in the breakaway region. Armed fighting broke out and continued until mid-November when the Puntland legislature elected a third local leader, Jama Ali Jama, as president. During the mayhem, all sides harassed and detained journalists for “publishing false information” and threatened to kill reporters who criticized them.

Back in Mogadishu, clan politics unfolded in their usual unpredictable way. On March 21, faction leaders opposed to the TNG formed the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) with the blessings of the Puntland regime, ostensibly to “lead the nation towards national unity.” As splinter groups bound by clan loyalty and Islam continued to challenge the TNG’s authority, the government grew touchier about Western influences on the content of local media.

On June 7, for example, Attorney General Ilyas Hasan Mahmud threatened to punish the broadcaster HornAfrik for “propagating Christianity” after the station aired BBC programs with some Christian content.

As the year drew to a close, Somalia’s warring factions gathered in the Kenyan town of Nakuru for peace talks. On December 24, after weeks of formal and informal meetings, all sides signed a peace deal designed to firm up the TNG’s legitimacy while granting clan leaders a voice in the political process.

February 21

Abdishakur Yusuf, War Ogaal

Yusuf, editor of the weekly War Ogaal, was arrested in Bosaso, in Somalia’s self-declared autonomous Puntland region, after the newspaper reported that two alleged lesbians had been sentenced to death for unnatural behavior.

According to the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network, Yusuf was released on April 1 and was considering suing local authorities for unlawful detention. The newspaper, which ceased publication during Yusuf’s incarceration, hit newsstands again around April 7.

May 19

Bashir Mohamed Abdi, free-lancer

Free-lance journalist Abdi was arrested and detained in the Bay Region capital, Baidoa, by members of the Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA), a militia that controls both the Bay and Bikol regions of Somalia.

Sources at HornAfrik Radio and TV in Mogadishu told CPJ that the RRA had accused Abdi several times of sending information to local newspapers and radio stations without the army’s knowledge. The journalist was released on May 26.

August 27

Bile Mahmud Qabowsade, Yool
Muhammad Sa’id Kashawito, Sooyal

Police in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland arrested Qabowsale, editor of the private newspaper Yool, and Kashawito, editor of the private newspaper Sooyal, for allegedly “publishing false information.” They were released more than 24 hours later.

The editors were arrested in Bosaso, the commercial capital of Puntland, after both papers ran a story about a woman who had been raped by burglars.

A local prosecutor apparently ordered the arrests on the grounds that the story had damaged the reputation of his district. While in custody, the two editors were asked to run retractions. Both stood by their story.

Qabowsade also claimed that several bullets were fired at his car, which was damaged, but that no one was hurt. He and Kashawito are now considering legal action against the regional administration.

At year’s end, CPJ was unable to verify whether the editors had proceeded with the lawsuit. This was because the U.S. government had severed telephone and e-mail communications to Somalia as part of its global war on terrorism.