Somali government silences three radio stations in two days

New York, November 13, 2007—Somalia’s U.S. and Ethiopian-backed government has forced three prominent private radio stations off the air since Monday over their coverage of the bloody conflict centered in Mogadishu, according to news reports and local journalists.

In a press conference today, Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed “Dheere” Omar Habeeb accused the private stations Radio Banadir and Radio Simba of coverage undermining the government, according to local journalists. The closures come as government forces backed by the Ethiopian military, were pursuing suspected Islamic insurgents in city neighborhoods.

The mayor’s statements came a few hours after Somali government troops led by agents of Somalia’s National Security Agency stormed the studios of Radio Banadir and Radio Simba, dispersing staffers, and ordering the stations to stop broadcasting until further notice, according to the same sources. Ethiopian troops later occupied the building housing the studios of Radio Simba, according to the station’s chief editor, Mustafa Haji.

Dheere accused Radio Simba of inciting antigovernment sentiment in a Sunday interview in which a spokesman for Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiya clan protested the arrest of clan elder Ahmed Dirye, Haji told CPJ. The mayor accused Radio Banadir of disseminating false news in reporting that mortar shells had landed in and around the presidential palace on Monday night, according to Abdirashid Abdullahi Haydar, an official with the National Union of Somali Journalists.

Today’s closures followed Monday’s forced shutdown of Radio Shabelle, a leading independent station broadcasting from Mogadishu’s main Bakara market, a suspected insurgent stronghold and the scene of house-to-house security sweeps.

“Any time the authorities in Mogadishu hear unwelcome news of the fighting in the city they send troops crashing through the door of the radio station responsible,” said Joel Simon, CPJ executive director. “This is crude and unacceptable censorship. Radio Shabelle, Radio Banadir and Radio Simba provide a vital service for all Somalis. They must be allowed back on air.”

Four private radio stations—including prominent HornAfrik Radio, Holy Quran Radio, Radio Somali Weyn, and Voice of Democracy—were still on air in Mogadishu, but were censoring their reports, according to local journalists. Saeed Tahlil, HornAfrik’s acting manager, told CPJ that stations still operating were vulnerable to being perceived by insurgents as pro-government.

The government has regularly cracked down on broadcast stations this year, shutting down four broadcasters in January, warning three to censor their coverage in February, closing down Qatar-based satellite television Al-Jazeera in March, and again shuttering three radio stations in June, according to CPJ research. Seven Somali journalists have been killed in the line of duty this year, the second highest death toll worldwide behind only Iraq. More than a dozen others have fled Mogadishu.