Attacks on the Press 2010: Somalia

Top Developments
• Africa’s most dangerous country for the press. Two journalists killed in 2010.
• Al-Shabaab shuts downs, seizes control of major radio stations.

Key Statistic
59: Somali journalists in exile, the second largest press diaspora in the world. Ethiopians constitute the largest.

Somalia remained Africa’s most dangerous country for the press. Two journalists were killed during the year in direct relation to their work, bringing the death toll to 23 since 2005. The conflict between Islamic insurgent groups and a weak Transitional Federal Government backed by African Union troops continued to fuel a steady exodus of journalists seeking to escape deadly violence, severe censorship, and harassment. CPJ’s 2010 analysis of exiled journalists, published in June, found that at least 16 journalists had fled the country in the prior 12 months, with 59 having gone into exile over the past decade. Remaining journalists practiced extreme self-censorship to survive.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
Across Continent,
Governments Criminalize
Investigative Reporting

Country Summaries
Democratic Republic of Congo
South Africa
Other nations

The central government controlled only a small patch of the capital, Mogadishu, a few miles in radius, while two hard-line Islamic groups, Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, controlled the large majority of the country. The escalating violence in central and southern Somalia forced an estimated 200,000 Somalis to flee their homes in 2010, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported.

Insurgent groups often considered professional journalists to be government supporters and, thus, enemy targets. The ongoing threat led reporters to flee the capital, with some resettling in Hargeisa, Somalia’s second-largest city, and others leaving the country entirely to live in Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti. “Most of the veteran professional journalists have fled,” said Mustafa Haji Abdinur, an Agence France-Presse reporter and 2009 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient who, at age 29, was a dean of the local press corps. “That’s one reason why I insist on staying here. Who will guide these young, inexperienced guys who are the only ones remaining?”

Highly sensitive to local radio coverage, hard-line militants were quick to seize journalists, censor news content, and close stations. Al-Shabaab ordered Radio Markabley in the southwestern town of Bardera off the air and detained the director and a reporter in March after the station aired a program highlighting the suffering of Somali citizens following the Kenyan government’s closure of a border crossing, according to local reports. Al-Shabaab released Director Ahmed Omar Salihi the following day and reporter Mohamed Abdihakim three days later. Insurgents told Salihi that his reporters would be killed if they continued to cover political issues, local journalists told CPJ.

Several media houses in Mogadishu sought refuge by relocating to the slivers of government-controlled territory. “While the government will harass and detain you, the other side will kill you–that’s the difference,” Radio Shabelle correspondent Abdihakim Jimale told CPJ. Shabelle, one of the leading independent radio stations, stealthily moved its equipment, piece by piece, from Mogadishu’s insurgent-controlled Bakara Market to a government-controlled area in June.

By late year, virtually all media in insurgent-controlled areas were forced to run propaganda or were shut down entirely. Al-Shabaab raided the studios of major independent broadcasters such as HornAfrik, Somaliweyn, and GBC in Mogadishu, and Radio Mandeeq in the southern town of Belet-Hawo, using the seized equipment for its own fledgling network of five stations, called Radio Al-Andalus. “They tied us up in our archive room and started looting the equipment,” said Radio Mandeeq producer Hassan Mohamed Mohamud. “Then they burned down our archive library, which I managed, and ruined years of Somali history.” During the holy Ramadan holiday, Al-Shabaab simply took over the major Mogadishu broadcaster Radio IQK, which had focused on Islamic issues.

Insurgents imposed severe censorship on all stations in rebel-held territories. Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab banned broadcasts of the World Cup, BBC programming, and all music, including advertising jingles and theme music introducing programming. Fourteen private radio stations in the capital stopped airing music in April after a Hizbul Islam leader, Sheikh Ma’alin Hashi, issued an ultimatum. Several stations started to use sound effects in place of music previously used to introduce programs, local journalists told CPJ. “I decided to record gunshot sounds for our news bulletins,” said one journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There are plenty of them to record around here and that’s usually what’s covered in the news anyways.” In May, before Radio Shabelle moved to a government-controlled area, Al-Shabaab commanders demanded that the station never mention shells fired by its forces and that it refer to civilians killed as “martyrs.”

Broadcasters Radio Shabelle, Tusmo, Voice of Democracy, Codka Nabadda, HCTV, Universal TV, the U.N.-backed Bar-Kulan Radio, as well as the state-run Radio Mogadishu, all operated within the government-controlled areas, Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman told CPJ. Nonetheless, Tusmo and Codka Nabadda upheld the insurgents’ ban on music, while HCTV refrained from criticizing Al-Shabaab, the minister added.

Journalists found themselves caught between two sides at times. After the insurgents sought to ban music on the radio, the government threatened to close the stations that complied with the order. “We will not tolerate the radio stations that halted airing music and songs in the government-controlled area,” Abdikafi Hilowle Osman, general secretary of the Banadir Regional Administration, told reporters at an April press conference. Two stations that complied with the music ban were taken off the air for six hours by security agents until the information minister at the time, Dahir Mohamud Gelle, intervened and reversed the order, the Somali Foreign Correspondents Association reported.

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the fatal shooting of veteran Radio Mogadishu journalist Sheikh Nur Mohamed Abkey near his home in southern Mogadishu in May. Colleagues said he was targeted for his affiliation with the government-run station. Abkey, who was in his 60s, had been a trainer and mentor to generations of young journalists, colleagues said. Earlier in the year, Hizbul Islam leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys declared at a press conference that journalists working for Radio Mogadishu should be killed for supporting “the enemy,” local journalists told CPJ.

Another veteran journalist, Barkhat Awale, 60, director of the community station Hurma Radio, was killed in crossfire in Mogadishu in August. Awale was on the roof of the station helping a technician fix a transmitter when he was struck in the abdomen by a bullet, local journalists told CPJ. Awale’s death came during intense fighting between Al-Shabaab insurgents and African Union troops. Earlier that day, at least 33 people were killed when two suicide bombers detonated explosives at the Muna Hotel, located near the presidential palace.

As the fighting intensified, the government harassed independent journalists covering the conflict. “You are not allowed to take pictures. If government soldiers are defeated in battle, they complain whether it is fact or not,” AFP’s Abdinur said. Police detained Abdinur and freelance cameraman Yusuf Jama in July for taking pictures of their colleague, Associated Press photojournalist Farah Abdi Warsame, who had been hit in crossfire in Mogadishu. The journalists were interrogated for several hours and forced to delete their photographs, Abdinur told CPJ. In June, New York Times correspondent Mohammed Ibrahim fled Somalia after receiving threats from government security forces over an article saying that the government had enlisted child soldiers. Ibrahim returned to Mogadishu in September after the government pledged that no harm would come to him.

African Union peacekeeping forces also obstructed local journalists. In November, AU troops at Aden-Adde International Airport prevented several photographers from taking pictures of a British couple who had been released by kidnappers, according to local reports.

Islamic rebel groups gradually infiltrated the semiautonomous region of Puntland, prompting authorities to crack down on the press under the guise of state security. Puntland Information Minister Abdihakim Ahmed Guled barred Nuh Muse, a correspondent for Universal TV and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, from working in Puntland, local journalists told CPJ. No explanation was given, but colleagues said the government apparently believed Muse had arranged interviews with the Islamic militant leader Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom. Since 2005, Atom had led a protracted guerrilla war from a base in the mountainous village of Galgala, about 30 miles (45 kilometers) south of the port city Bossasso.

The private station Horseed FM also faced government reprisals for interviewing Atom in August, after his forces attacked Puntland troops in the Galgala region, Horseed Director Mahad Ahmed told CPJ. Armed police stormed the station in Bossasso the day of the interview, arresting Deputy Director Abdifatah Jama and seven other staff members, according to local journalists. The other staff members were released after a few hours, but Jama was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison the following day under a broad regional anti-terror law. Horseed appealed the court decision, noting that Jama had no access to a lawyer during the summary proceedings, Ahmed said. Provisions of the anti-terror law, passed by the regional parliament in July, had not been publicly disseminated by late year, leaving the press unsure even of what constituted a violation, local journalists told CPJ. Following international pressure, Jama was freed on a presidential pardon in November.

Journalists faced several other threats from Puntland security forces and rebel groups throughout the year. CPJ documented nine cases of police and security personnel attacking journalists with impunity. In one case, security guards stationed at the High Court in Bossasso beat Radio Simba journalist Ahmed Ibrahim Noor, leaving him unconscious, local journalists reported. Noor suffered headaches and dizziness for days following the unexplained attack, the National Union of Somali Journalists reported.

In January, unidentified assailants threw hand grenades at three Galkayo-based radio stations: Radio Voice of Mudug, Radio Hobyo, and Radio Galkayo. Burhan Ahmed Dahir, secretary general of the Media Association of Puntland, told CPJ that three journalists and one security guard were injured in the attacks. The perpetrators and the motive were unclear, Dahir said.

By comparison, the northern breakaway republic of Somaliland boasted a vibrant press. Papers such as the critical private weekly Heegan were able to provide thorough and balanced coverage of the region’s presidential election. Regional officials staged a relatively peaceful and free election in which opposition leader Ahmed M. Mahamoud Silanyo defeated the incumbent, Dahir Riyale Kahin, for the presidency.

“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.” They did so despite some harassment. In early June, police detained several journalists for a day after they took pictures of presidential guards attacking people displaying an opposition party flag, local journalists told CPJ. Security agents arrested Hadis Mohamed, editor of a critical website Baadiya, and held him without charge for a three-day period that coincided with the voting, Mohamed told CPJ. He said he was targeted for giving equal coverage to the opposition.

The National Union of Somali Journalists petitioned the new government to allow private broadcasters to operate in Somaliland. Although Somaliland had a relatively free, independent print press, its radio and TV outlets were state-controlled. Many citizens relied on private radio stations that broadcast outside of the country, such as the Netherlands-based Horyaal Radio, local journalists told CPJ.