On July 13, Somalia’s Cabinet approved proposed changes to the country’s national media law as part of a review to overhaul the regulatory framework under which journalists currently work. But Somali journalists and local media rights groups have criticized the government for not doing enough to provide journalists with a less restrictive environment.
CPJ spoke with Ahmedweli Hussein, chief editor of the privately owned station Goobjoog Radio, about the impact he thinks the revised law will have on Somalia’s press. Ahmedweli said that he thinks the government ignored most of the recommendations made by the press during the consultation period.
Under the revisions, which still need parliamentary approval, libel fines will be lowered from US$3,000 to US$1,500 and a requirement that journalists have journalism degrees before being registered by the Somali Media Commission, an ostensibly independent body whose members will be selected by the Information Minister, will be scrapped. However, penalties of up to US$1,500 will be imposed on those convicted of “fake news” and journalists wanting to cover the president’s office will need to have at least two years’ experience to obtain the necessary press card.
Ahmedweli said that requiring journalists to have two years’ experience to obtain a press card will act as a barrier to entry into the profession. He added that parts of the proposed law that ban “fake news” are vague and could be used by authorities to restrict media freedom.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Tell me a little bit about the history of this bill? Why do you want it changed?
Throughout the 2000s, every new information minister in Somalia came up with their own media law. The latest one was proposed in 2015 and signed by the president in 2016. But media had some serious concerns about it and we wanted it changed.
The main problem was some articles concerning who can be a Somali journalist. This created great concern. It said that a journalist is one who has graduated from university with a media degree. The current Minister of Information is reviewing this law. I read the version of the new bill that the Cabinet approved on July . It is now awaiting approval of parliament and the signature of the president.
Have these concerns been addressed in the version of the bill?
No. Not all of them. They removed the thing about the university degree. It is now not necessary. But they now say that journalist must have either skill, which is not clearly explained in the law, or two years’ experience. You should wait two years to be a journalist. It is something laughable to have to wait two years and it is not clear how you’re supposed to create this experience. Maybe it means working in a media station for two years, like training or internship. The previous provision was more problematic, but this one is also problematic.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Somalia’s Minister for Information Abdirahman Omar Osman told CPJ that requirements for experience were meant only for journalists seeking access to presidential offices and other “high profile areas for security related matters.”]
I also have a problem with the Somali Media Commission, which will be the oversight body regulating the Fourth Estate in Somalia. The commission will enforce media ethics as set out in the law. It can impose penalties against journalists and media houses for any breach. It can mediate if a disagreement arises.
The commission is supposed to be independent but the way it is written in the law it is not. The minister will propose the members, [and] parliament and the president will approve. The commission will consist of nine members: three of them will be from privately owned media; three from civil society; and three from government. But there is contradiction because it says that those from private media cannot be media owners, manager or journalists. So who is supposed to be a member? It is not clear.
There is also a clause on fake news. An article in the bill says, “It is forbidden to publish false news or editorial articles or allegations against the honor of a citizen, organization or government.” But the law does not clearly state what fake news is. There is ambiguity and the government can use this as a tool to pressure the freedom of Somali media.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Somalia’s Minister for Information told CPJ that active journalists and editors were excluded to guarantee objectivity of the commission. He said that people with experience in privately owned media could be nominated.]
How will this law change how journalists work in Somalia if it is passed by parliament?
I think this law will change nothing but it will only be a tool that Somali government [uses to] put pressure to the journalist. The government passed [the 2015 law] and did not implement it because the journalists protested. It is the same thing with this law. The journalists are protesting this new law again, so the fight will go on. Discussions and disputes will go on. The government will not tire [of arresting] journalists and the journalists will defend themselves from the government. The debate will not end. The law will be passed but the debate will continue.
What would be the situation for journalists if it is implemented despite protests from the press?
If the government implemented the law while journalists are protesting against [it] the situation for the journalists will be either to accept the law and refrain from reporting from the truth or to face harassment and jailing from the government, and that will more likely silence the media people and freedom of expression in the country.
The government says that the media was given a lot of opportunity to consult on this law. Is this true?
Yes, they gave an opportunity to the media houses and media organizations in the country, but when it comes to harvesting the results of the negotiating and consultations they produce [something different from] what the government, civil society, and media agreed, so that is the problem.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Somalia’s Minister for Information told CPJ that the government gave the media ample opportunity to respond to the proposal, which he said was sent to media rights organizations on July 11.]
Has the battle to change the bill been lost? What is the next step?
I am one of the journalists who was consulted before they passed the current law in 2016. We felt like the government ignored our recommendations and made their own. They used their own judgment. They always consult us but don’t take our advice. Now the bill is going to parliament to be approved but I am not optimistic that they will listen to us to make changes or reject it in its current form.
[Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.]