Journalism conferences discussing global trends often inflate the real but intermittent risks faced by foreign correspondents from wealthier nations who travel to and report from less stable regions of the world. They do so at the expense of downplaying if not plain ignoring the much greater risks faced by local journalists who live in such areas with their families and report daily for homegrown, regional media. The Deutsche Welle annual Global Media Forum in Bonn is not one of them.
Every year the German state broadcast agency spends the time and resources to bring together journalists from each continent to discuss how their respective and collective work might help prevent violence and other forms of destruction. This year’s conference–held these days in the post-Cold War era at the old West German Bundestag building in Bonn–brought in many participants from sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the three-day conference’s more compelling panels focused on the literally war-torn nation of Somalia. No one knew that by the end of the week one of the colleagues of the representative from the well-respected and all-too-frequently bloodied Radio Shabelle would be shot dead and another would be left wounded in Mogadishu.
Analog or old-fashioned radio is still the most common news platform throughout most of Africa, as it is in South Asia and many other areas where most people live in or near poverty. But digital technology is catching up across the sub-Saharan continent at an exponential rate, noted Harry Dugmore from Rhodes University in South Africa. The white South African professor runs Iindaba Ziyafika or “The News Is Coming” project funded by the U.S.-based Knight Foundation. Cell phones with text messaging capability will soon be in the hands of most Africans, said Dugmore, who added that Internet technology is not far behind.
African journalists in particular, however, noted that practitioners of the new technology may be cheapening the profession. Mildred Ngesa is a seven-time award-winning print journalist from Kenya, but she could have easily been speaking about journalism in many nations. We need to recover “the soul of journalism,” she said to applause on one panel, pointing out that online media has often helped spread rumors, innuendo and outright falsehoods about events and people in Kenya. She made the call for journalists in all platforms to return to what the unofficial deans of journalism ethics in the United States, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel, have called the “discipline of verification.”
Somali journalists were critical of online media for another reason. The nation still has outlets led by radio news stations, but foreign-based Web sites focused on Somalia have proliferated in recent years. Renowned journalist Omar Faruk Osman, who is also a press freedom advocate and trade union leader, along with Mohamed Amiin Adow of the independent Shabelle Media Network, both said that most of the diaspora-based Web sites are linked to different armed clans or other groups. Their reporting, they argued, promotes factionalism over any notion of professional reporting.
But you shouldn’t paint any media platform with too broad a brush, noted Abbas Gassem, founder of InsideSomalia,org. No doubt online journalism represents some of the most enterprising reporting in many nations.
CPJ organized a conference panel on the attempts by governments to censor the Internet. Yaman Akdeniz, director of the U.K.-based Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties, described how laws designed to control vices like child pornography and online gambling can also be used in nations like Turkey to restrict news and information. Noha Atef, founder and director of TortureinEgypt.net, spoke about reporting on torture and other abuses by government authorities in Egypt. Chinese blogger Yang Hengjun criticized Western firms that help China build the technology required to block and filter Internet sites. Lisa Horner of Global Partners & Associates, a social purpose company based in London, addressed the pros and cons of efforts including the Global Network Initiative supported by CPJ to try to overcome Web censorship.
How to measure the impact of any press freedom effort is difficult. People often ask CPJ how we calculate success. There are few if any reliable scientific or statistical methods to do so. But the anecdotal evidence is compelling. Throughout the three days in Bonn, one journalist after another from nations on nearly every continent sought me out to tell me how grateful each remains to CPJ for having helped them when facing risks of imprisonment, violence, or other hazards in their respective nations. “When I heard there was someone here from CPJ I just wanted to find you,” said Jahangir Alam Akash, editor of Human Rights Today in Bangladesh.
I also took to heart the welcoming nods, smiles, and kind words received from journalists like Faruk and Amiin from Somalia. That was Thursday in Bonn. Three days later Radio Shabelle Director Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe was gunned down in Mogadishu; News Editor Ahmad Omar Hashi was wounded. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and colleagues.
Hirabe, 48, was the third Shabelle journalists killed this year, and the fifth overall. Somalia is the most dangerous country in Africa to work as a journalist, with five journalists killed this year, according to CPJ research.
The latest attack may have been due to false stories that claimed Islamist opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was killed or seriously injured during an intense Friday conflict that killed more than 120 people, according to wire reports. But some of Hashi and Hirabi’s colleagues said they believe insurgents are targeting Somalia’s leading independent radio stations in an effort to control the airwaves. Radio Shabelle is currently off the air since the majority of workers have either fled or are in hiding, Editor-in-Chief Addirahman Yusuf told CPJ. Even at Hirabe’s funeral, journalists and family members were forced to flee the ceremony after mourners noticed four men with pistols had shown up, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists.
The tragedy only underscores the importance of Deutsche Welle’s efforts to make sure the struggles of journalists like them is neither forgotten nor ignored.