Remembering Said Tahlil

Falastiin Iman, a former producer for the independent Somali broadcaster HornAfrik, was talking by phone on Sunday with the station’s director, Said Tahlil, left. He was upbeat, she said, a mood that is not easy to come by in Mogadishu. “He was so happy that peace was finally coming to Somalia and that, miraculously, HornAfrik TV and Radio was still able to operate and report throughout all the crises.”  On Tuesday, Tahlil was killed, shot repeatedly by masked assailants. He and several other senior journalists were on their way to a meeting with members of Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group that was apparently displeased with local coverage of Saturday’s presidential election won by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The moderate Islamic leader’s easy victory was seen by many, including Tahlil, as a turning point in Somalia and a chance for peace after decades of fighting. Al-Shabaab had rejected the election and considered the newly elected Ahmed to be a puppet of the west.

The other journalists escaped without serious injury, but Tahlil died at the scene.

Sahal Abdulle, an exiled Somali journalist who now resides in Canada, considered Tahlil one of the best journalists he ever worked with. “Said Tahlil was one of those rare breed of Somali journalist that I have come to know while I was working in Somalia as the Reuters correspondent. He will not be only missed by his family and friends but millions of voiceless Somalis that he gave a voice to. His legacy will be with us for quite a long time,” Abdulle told CPJ.

Somalia, embroiled in civil conflict for most of the past two decades, is one of the deadliest places in the world for the press. Since 2007, 11 Somali journalists have been slain.

Abdulle and Iman know the dangers facing Somali journalists as well as anyone. On one brutal day in August 2007–in the middle of a funeral procession for a murdered colleague–Abdulle and Iman were in a car with HornAfrik owner Ali Sharmarke when a roadside bomb went off. Remarkably, Abdulle and Iman survived, but Shamarke was killed. The three were driving in a procession for Mahad Ahmed Elmi, head of a HornAfrik affiliate who was shot dead just outside of Iman’s house just hours before.

Despite these awful deaths, Tahlil took the risky job as director of HornAfrik in the volatile Bakara Market area of Mogadishu. At times, threats were so pervasive that Tahlil and other HornAfrik journalists were living in their office to avoid being killed. “I’ve been in this compound for two months,” Tahlil said told The Washington Post in 2007. “I don’t go anywhere. I will not go to my home. I will not go to the market. After they killed my boss and my friend, I am scared of everything. I’m like an imprisoned person here.”

Tahlil and others had hoped the election of Ahmed would bring peace and allow journalists to carry out their work without the fear of death. Now, Tahlil is dead, and some journalists are fearful of even attending the funeral.

“Last night I remembered the funeral of Mahad and prayed that nothing will occur during Tahlil’s funeral,” said Iman, who moved to the United States with CPJ’s help after facing repeated threats on her life.

CPJ research shows that at least 21 Somali journalists went into exile in 2008 alone, although local groups note the figure is likely to be much higher. Foreign journalists are staying away from Somalia, fearing potential kidnapping and attack.

Not many are left in Mogadishu to report an important story. Tahlil was one of the few who insisted on staying despite nearly impossible conditions. Survived by his wife and eight children, a host of journalists whose careers he helped, and an important body of work, Tahlil will be greatly missed.