Attacks on the Press 2007: Somalia

Attacks had become so pervasive in this conflict-riven state that the National Union of Somali Journalists described 2006 as “the most dangerous year for press freedom for more than a decade.” Then came 2007–a year in which conditions grew dramatically worse.

With seven journalists killed in direct relation to their work, Somalia was the deadliest place for the press in Africa and second only to Iraq worldwide. The deaths came amid widespread violence in this Horn of Africa state, which has had no effective central government since 1991. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that nearly 600,000 people had fled during the year, as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), backed by Ethiopian troops, clashed repeatedly with the militias of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of fundamentalist law courts that had held power for six months in 2006.

Four Somali journalists–Mohammed Abdullahi Khalif of Voice of Peace, Abshir Ali Gabre and Ahmed Hassan Mahad of Radio Jowhar, and Abdulkadir Mahad Moallim Kaskey of Radio Banadir–died in crossfire during factional clashes, but three others were targeted for murder as the conflict turned more perilous in mid-year. On August 11, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, director of independent radio station Capital Voice, was shot four times at close range as he walked to work in central Mogadishu. That afternoon, Ali Iman Shamarke–head of the media network HornAfrik, Capital Voice’s parent company–died when the Land Cruiser in which he was riding was destroyed by a remotely detonated bomb. Reuters correspondent Sahal Abdulle said Shamarke was returning from Elmi’s funeral when he was killed. Two months later, the acting director of Radio Shabelle, Bashiir Noor Gedi, was shot and killed outside his home in Mogadishu after receiving a series of threats. Somalia police spokesman Abdel Wahid Mohamed said two ICU rebels had been detained in the killings of Shamarke and Elmi, but no immediate progress was reported in their prosecution.

Politically motivated attacks, arrests, harassment, and threats came from both sides in the conflict. In October, for example, insurgents targeted Mogadishu-based Radio Simba with threatening telephone calls and e-mails because of the station’s anti-violence programming. That same month, government officials detained two Radio Simba journalists for broadcasting an interview with an ICU military leader. Many of the reprisals were triggered by the media’s reporting on human rights abuses by both rebels and government forces. Nationwide, CPJ documented the arrests of at least 60 journalists in 22 separate cases, the vast majority of which were conducted without warrants or even formal charges.

In a public statement issued in October, Information Minister Madobe Nunow Mohamed accused private broadcasters of “creating insecurity, supporting terrorism, violating freedom of expression, misleading the public, and becoming antigovernment.” He also released a letter ordering all media organizations to register with the ministry in order to operate in the country. The demand appeared to have been made without any legal basis, and it was widely ignored. Foreign governments and international organizations such as CPJ urged President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed to abandon the crackdown on the press. Following the lead of national leaders, Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed “Dheere” Omar Habeeb closed Radio Shabelle, Radio Banadir, and Radio Simba in November on charges of broadcasting “false” and “antigovernment” news. Facing local and international pressure, Habeeb relented three weeks later and allowed the stations to resume broadcasting.

Despite the adversity, Somalia’s small corps of newspapers and radio stations–which emerged after the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991–continued to undertake critical, independent reporting. The clan warfare that emerged from the leadership struggle was a major focus for the press in 2007. Although Ethiopian-backed government troops forced the ICU out of Mogadishu in December 2006, elements of the Islamist coalition remained intact, waging a guerrilla war against government forces throughout the year.

The ICU draws its internal support predominantly from the Hawiye clan, the largest ethnic group in Somalia, while the government is widely seen as aligned with the Darod, the country’s second-largest clan. The transitional government has reinforced this perception by pursuing policies that alienate the Hawiye, notably in its appeal for Ethiopian troops and its relocation of the central government from the traditional capital, Mogadishu, to the southwestern city of Baidoa. The age-old rivalry between the Hawiye, the dominant clan in Mogadishu, and the Darod, who populate Baidoa and the semiautonomous region of Puntland, have helped fuel the conflict.

The two leading independent radio broadcasters, HornAfrik and Radio Shabelle, have borne the brunt of attacks. CPJ documented at least 13 cases in which Radio Shabelle journalists were harassed, detained, censored, or assaulted, and another seven cases involving HornAfrik staffers. In mid-September, government security forces raided and shelled Radio Shabelle’s Mogadishu compound, forcing the station off the air for 15 days. Security forces claimed they were responding to a grenade attack launched from within the compound, although station employees said they knew of no such attack. Government soldiers camped on the roads leading to the station, blocking any attempt to enter or exit, the BBC reported.

In April, government soldiers shelled the HornAfrik and Global Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) compounds during an attack on suspected insurgent strongholds in the Huruwaa district of Mogadishu. GBC closed four months later. “Every day government forces and unknown insurgent groups are opening fire and killing people in Mogadishu,” GBC Director Dalmar Yusuf told CPJ. “We had to close down; we cannot operate in this environment.”

The government closed the Somali operations of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera in March without providing a substantive explanation. “Al-Jazeera has conveyed the wrong messages to the world,” Information Minister Nunow told The Associated Press. “We will shut down additional radio stations and channels if they distort facts.” Authorities moved against another international news outlet in April, imprisoning three members of a camera crew from U.K.-based Universal Television in connection with questions they asked about peace talks during an interview with a presidential spokesman, according to local journalists. They were released six weeks later.

Both warring parties objected to the formation of professional journalism associations. Ali Moalim Isak, a correspondent for the independent Baidoa station Radio Warsan and organizing secretary of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), went into hiding in September after suspected Islamist insurgents went looking for him at his office in Mogadishu. Moalim told CPJ he had received several threatening phone calls ordering him to stop speaking out against attacks on journalists or he would be killed. The following month, Information Minister Nunow announced in an interview on Radio Shabelle that NUSOJ had no right to organize or represent journalists.

The conflict continued to have devastating effects on the economy, particularly in Mogadishu, where inflation drove up prices dramatically. According to Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek, the price of rice doubled during one five-day period in October. Beleaguered businesses were abandoning the city, leaving little advertising revenue for the media outlets that remained. “The city is getting emptier day by day,” said Radio Shabelle Deputy Director Mohamed Amiin. “Soon none of the independent media groups will be able to survive financially.” Among the thousands who left Mogadishu in 2007, more than 30 were journalists, CPJ research showed.

While most of the attacks on the press were centered in Mogadishu, a number were reported in the less restive regions of Puntland and Somaliland. Puntland Minister of Information Abdirahman Mohammed Bankah imposed a ban on media activities that do not have prior permission from the ministry. Banned were such basic functions as seminars and professional associations. Radio Garowe was temporarily closed and three journalists detained by security forces in October after the station broadcast an interview with a former Somali National Security Agency employee who was critical of the country’s security forces. The detainees were told not to report on the agency again, Radio Garowe journalists said. In March, the offices of the independent weekly Shacab were damaged in an arson attack, forcing the paper to suspend publication for more than a month, Editor Abdi Farah Nur told CPJ.

Authorities in the self-declared republic of Somaliland continued to harass journalists despite having a constitution that guarantees free expression. While Somaliland’s 2004 press law prohibits prison sentences for press offenses such as defamation, three journalists with the privately owned daily Haatuf were tried under the region’s 1962 penal code in January. The journalists were imprisoned for three months for “insulting the president of the republic of Somaliland and his wife,” Police Commissioner Muhammad Sangade Dubad told Radio Hargeysa. “Any material that is critical of local authorities will get you in trouble,” Haatuf correspondent Amin Jibril told CPJ. Jibril should know: He was detained three times after writing a series of reports that exposed abuses by security forces.