In Somaliland, jailed journalists sentenced to prison

New York, March 5, 2007—Four journalists of a leading independent daily in the northern breakaway republic of Somaliland were sentenced to prison on Sunday, and their paper’s publication license indefinitely revoked over stories critical of President Dahir Rayale Kahin, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) and news reports.

Haatuf publisher Yusuf Abdi Gabobe was sentenced to two years in prison, while editor Ali Abdi Dini, investigative reporter Muhammad-Rashid Farah and correspondent Muhammad Omar Sheekh were sentenced to two years and five months by a regional court in Mandhera, north of the capital Hargeysa, according to NUSOJ and local journalists. The court also issued an injunction ordering the indefinite closure of the paper and fined Haatuf Media Network 5 million Somaliland shillings (US$800), according to Reuters. The paper continued to operate normally today, and planned to file an appeal, associate editor Rashid Mostafa told CPJ.

“This verdict criminalizes independent reporters for doing their job of holding government officials to account,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We hope an appeal court will overturn this verdict, and we call on authorities to refrain from seeking prison sentences for press offenses.”

Dini and Farah faced three criminal charges, including defaming the head of state, over a series of articles alleging corruption and nepotism by Kahin and his wife. Farah, the author of the articles, went into hiding in January fearing arrest shortly after authorities jailed Gabobe and Dini on January 2. Sheekh was arrested 12 days later in connection with articles alleging environmental damage by a private fishing company linked to the First Lady, according to Mostafa. The presidential couple did not respond to the allegations, but Kahin was quoted by Mustafa Abdi Isse, Chairman of the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA), as saying that he would pardon the journalists if they were found guilty, according to local media reports.

The ruling came five days after Somaliland’s Supreme Court upheld the regional court’s decision to try the journalists under Somalia’s 1962 Penal Code, according to local media reports. Defense lawyers had filed an appeal requesting that the case be tried under Somaliland’s 2004 Press Law, which prohibits prison sentences for press offences. They boycotted Sunday’s proceedings, which took place in Mandhera’s police academy, citing the venue was illegal, according to Mostafa. The jailed journalists declined to present a defense, alleging the trial proceedings were politicized.

Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 and has held several elections deemed to have been free and fair, according to international news reports.