Puntland editor jailed after airing rebel leader interview

New York, August 16, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland to immediately release jailed radio journalist Abdifatah Jama, who was sentenced on Saturday to six years in prison on charges related to an interview with Islamic rebel leader Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom.

CPJ said court proceedings against Jama, deputy director of the privately owned Horseed FM, violated basic standards of fairness. The court issued its ruling just a day after Jama’s arrest, closed the proceedings to the public, and denied Jama access to a lawyer, the journalist’s supervisor, Mahad M. Ahmed, told CPJ. Horseed plans to appeal the court ruling, Ahmed said. CPJ called on Puntland court officials to free Jama pending appeal and to overturn Saturday’s summary ruling.

Armed police stormed the station in the port city Bossasso on Friday evening, arresting Jama and seven other staff members, according to local journalists. The other staff members were soon released, but Jama was convicted and sentenced the next day under Puntland’s anti-terror law.

The interview with Atom, which was conducted by another Horseed journalist, was aired earlier on Friday. The interviewer asked a series of critical and challenging questions of Atom, and the report provided political context, according to Ahmed, the station’s executive director, and another, independent CPJ source.

The anti-terror law, passed by parliament on July 20, is itself unclear. In an interview with CPJ, Ahmed said the contents of the law have yet to be disclosed to the public.

“Puntland authorities are cracking down on independent coverage of the conflict in their region, and Abdifatah Jama has been unjustly caught up in this repression,” said CPJ’s East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Puntland authorities should immediately release Jama, whose treatment was patently unfair, and end their obstruction of independent news coverage.”

Judge Farah Hassan issued a stiffer sentence than that recommended by prosecutor Mohamud Mohamed, who had sought a three-year term, the National Union of Somali Journalistsreported. Police transferred Jama to the Bossasso Detention Center on Sunday.

Puntland Information Minister Abdihakin Ahmed told journalists at a press conference on Sunday that Jama was “lucky” to receive a six-year sentence since the maximum sentence under the new anti-terror law is 20 years. The minister ordered journalists not to interview rebel forces under Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom, and said they would face “severe punishment” if they did, the union reported.

Since 2005, Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom has controlled a small area of Galgala, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) south of Bossasso with an armed militia. In May, Atom declared the area he controls an Islamic state and escalating battles ensued between the warring parties, local journalists told CPJ. On Friday, the same day Horseed interviewed the militia commander, Atom’s forces attacked Puntland troops in the Galgala region, killing five soldiers.

Puntland authorities have been clamping down on independent coverage of the regional conflict in recent weeks. On August 10, the information minister issued a letter indefinitely suspending VOA and Universal TV reporter Nuh Muse from working in Puntland, local journalists told CPJ. No explanation was given for the suspension, but CPJ sources said the government believed Muse had been arranging interviews with civilians caught in the conflict.