Voters at a Somaliland polling station on June 26. (Ahmed Kheyre)
Voters at a Somaliland polling station on June 26. (Ahmed Kheyre)

Somaliland elections and coverage surprisingly…normal

Critical voices in the East African media—whether in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, or Uganda—have been intimidated, banned, blocked, and beaten prior to elections in recent years. Somalia is so embroiled in conflict that even the concept of having elections remains a faraway dream. But in late June, the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland in northern Somalia managed to hold relatively peaceful and free elections with decent media coverage, local journalists and election observers told CPJ.

“Given the poor resources and training of the journalists here,” BBC reporter Jamal Abdi told CPJ, “the local media did a remarkably good job covering the elections and polling across Somaliland’s six polling regions.”

Former opposition leader Mohamed Silyano from the Kulmiye Party defeated outgoing president Dahir Riyale, who honored his pre-vote pledge to accept the results and leave office peacefully.

Yet not everything has been rosy. For one, the June 26 elections were postponed three times—they were originally supposed to take place more than two years ago. And throughout the process, local journalists told CPJ, high tensions simmered between the government and the media. In early June, police detained several journalists for a day after they took pictures of former presidential guards attacking opposition party supporters who had displayed an opposition flag, local journalists told CPJ.

Police detained Al-Jazeera reporter Mohammed Adow for two hours prior to the election results after he visited a politically sensitive border area where territorial disputes exist between Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, local journalists told CPJ. Security agents also detained independent website Editor Hadis Mohamed, originally from Mogadishu, during the election for “serious crimes” that were never detailed. “I have been arrested seven times over the past few years without any reason ever given or attending court,” Mohamed told CPJ. “Our website, Baadiya, is targeted because we gave equal coverage for the political rally activities wherever possible.”

Local journalists also told CPJ they felt the media’s coverage was politically polarized. The state press was biased toward the former president while the independent press favored the opposition parties. With limited independent media coverage outside the capital, Hargeisa, the state-run Radio Hargeisa (the only station officially allowed to broadcast in Somaliland) provided coverage biased toward Riyale outside the city, the BBC’s Abdi said. Still, the Netherlands-based opposition Radio Horyaal managed to broadcast in remote areas of Somaliland where Radio Hargeisa could not reach, the editor of the private newspaper Heegan, Mohamed Amin, told CPJ.

In comparison to greater Somalia, however, where insurgents banned viewing the World Cup and a near-powerless government continues to arrest journalists for negative coverage, Somaliland’s media scene appears robust. Journalists were allowed to move freely throughout the polling stations without hindrance, Associated Press reporter Mohamed Olad told CPJ.

The public and local press feared violence after two former ruling party officials alleged there had been vote rigging in favor of the opposition in five precincts, Abdi told CPJ. “But I was pleasantly surprised when I visited the offices of Radio Hargeisa,” Abdi said. “I found Radio Hargeisa staff actually complaining that the allegations were false and could lead to post-election violence.” Even Riyale supporters objected to the allegations and the two officials were arrested, Abdi added.

How has Somaliland kept the elections and its media coverage relatively peaceful? “They have learned from example—the bad example of their neighbors,” said Olad, who often reports in the war-torn Somali capital, Mogadishu. Somaliland has become a haven for exiled Mogadishu journalists fleeing the fighting in Somalia, where 33 journalists have been killed for their work since 1993.

Somaliland journalists told me they now hope government and media relations will improve under Silyano. Whereas Riyale was a former intelligence official and wary of the press, Mohamed said, Silyano was more open with the press as an opposition party leader. “But let’s wait and see,” a cautious Amin told me, as opposition leaders often change their spots once they attain power. A once-popular Senegalese opposition leader, Abdoulaye Wade, had promised upon his 2000 presidential election to decriminalize libel laws against the press. A disgruntled local Senegalese press, who had strongly supported his 2000 candidacy, is still waiting. 

(Reporting from Nairobi)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The fifth paragraph has been corrected to clarify that Mohammed Adow was held for two hours and that Hadis Mohamed edits Baadiya.