“He’s free! He’s free!” a friend of mine from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, shouted down the phone line on Sunday. For a fleeting second I did not know whom he referred to, given the high number of journalists imprisoned in the Horn region of Africa–but then it dawned on me: Abdiaziz Abdinuur had finally found justice. The 25-year-old freelance reporter was arrested on January 10 in Mogadishu for the most incomprehensible alleged crime: conducting an interview.
“Interviewing an alleged victim of rape got me in prison,” Abdiaziz told international broadcaster Al-Jazeera soon after he was released. “The interview that got me in prison was not even published. I didn’t do anything wrong. As a journalist it is my job to interview people.” He said he shared his cell with about 40 others.
After he spoke to a woman who alleged that security personnel had raped her last year, Abdiaziz faced a confounding series of charges. He was first sentenced to a year in prison for “offending state institutions” and “false reporting,” although he had not published any story based on the interview. An appeals court later reduced his sentence to six months on charges of “not reporting the [alleged rape] case to relevant authorities.” The confusing court rulings, which the local journalist union termed “completely insane and unjust,” appeared to be a tool for state institutions to save face rather than exact justice. After most Somali journalists had given up hope, the Supreme Court threw out the charges, with Chairman Aidid Abdilahi citing lack of evidence, according to news reports. Similar charges against the woman who alleged rape–“offending state institutions” with “false allegations”–were dropped, citing lack of evidence, during the appeal.
“I can only summarize my feeling that my colleague who was sentenced by the injustice was freed by the justice,” said Mohamed Garane, Somali journalist and producer at Kenya-based Radio Ergo.
The Supreme Court’s action followed pressure from Somali journalists and the international community. David Cameron shared his concerns with CPJ after we wrote a public letter to the U.K. prime minister, urging him to address the case with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud during the president’s February visit to London. Cameron told us in a letter that he personally raised the issue during his February 5 meeting with Hassan and that he “was very concerned to hear about the conviction in this case,” and would continue to raise it.
Some scribes in Mogadishu were puzzled why this case took such prominence, given the high number of journalists killed with impunity in what is possibly the most dangerous city in Africa to be a journalist. But, as Garane put it, Abdiaziz’s case represented the injustice against all victims of Somalia’s judiciary, while his release represented a glimmer of hope for the future. Local journalists’ expectations for the establishment of rule of law in Mogadishu by a new government after decades of conflict were quashed by Abdiaziz’s imprisonment, and his arrest sent a chilling message to the press not to cover sensitive issues such as rape or activities related to national security.
All the same, “I will continue to be a journalist,” Abdiaziz said. “With my experience I hope to help others who are going through what I went through.”
Celebrations were short-lived within Mogadishu’s media fraternity. Just one day after Abdiaziz was released, a car bomb exploded near the presidential palace and National Theater, killing journalist Mohamed Ali Nuxurkey and wounding three colleagues, local news reports said. Some sources said Mohamed was sitting in a nearby café when the explosion killed 11 total; others said he was waiting for a public bus to take him to work. In either scenario, Somalia lost yet another bright, young reporter. Mohamed was working with several independent local radio stations and associations, including Radio Mustaqbal and Radio Kulmiye, local journalists told me. “The 29-year-old had been contributing to VOA for the past several months, gathering material for breaking news stories, including past bomb attacks in the Somali capital, and the controversial trial of a woman who said she had been raped by Somali forces,” the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America said in a statement.
Mohamed was well versed in the risks he faced as a prominent journalist in Mogadishu. In October 2012, he had written to me expressing his fears. After a suicide bomber killed three journalists in a café in September near where this latest attack occurred and unknown gunmen killed three more reporters in the same month, Mohamed was considering fleeing the country. In October he received death threats from unknown callers, and neighbors reported that strange men were asking for him near his home. Like many Somali journalists, Mohamed started to live like a nomad, moving from location to location ensure his safety and only going out when necessary. He told me at the time a piece he wrote about the plight of Somali journalists may have triggered the warnings by suspected Al-Shabaab militias. But then the threats seem to dissipate and the journalist killings in Mogadishu appeared to taper off at the end of the year. With the apparent calm, Mohamed jumped full-swing into his profession in a bid to support his wife and newly born baby, local journalists told me.
It does not appear Mohamed was the target of the car bomb attack. According to news reports, Al-Shabaab insurgents were trying to kill the city’s security chief and several other intelligence officers. But such reports provide little comfort to Mohamed’s family and colleagues.
The injured journalists were Abdirashid Nur, Mohamed’s colleague at Radio Mustaqbal, Ilyaas Sheikh Ahmed, a photographer for the European Press Agency, and Munasar Nur from the independent Radio Goobjoog. All the journalists received treatment at Medina Hospital and have been discharged, local journalists told me.
At least one Somali journalist has already been targeted for murder this year. Unknown gunmen killed veteran Shabelle Media Network producer Abdihared Osman Aden on January 18 while he was walking to work. Somali authorities have not convicted a single killer of Somali journalists despite pledges by the president to end this impunity.