Nairobi, September 18, 2019 — Authorities in the breakaway region of Somaliland should immediately release two HadhwanaagNews employees and unblock the outlet’s website, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On September 3, a court in Hargeisa, the capital, ordered internet providers to block HadhwanaagNews, a privately owned political news website, throughout Somaliland following the outlet’s August 18 publication of an opinion article that leveled corruption allegations against Ali Ibrahim Jama, the governor of Somaliland’s central bank, according to a copy of the court order reviewed by CPJ and Ahmed J. Farah, the Canada-based owner of HadhwanaagNews, who spoke to CPJ via phone. Following the September 3 court order, the outlet’s website was blocked in Somaliland, Ahmed said, but CPJ was able to access the website from Kenya and the United States.
On September 10, police arrested Abdikani Abdullahi Ahmed, also known as Asporo, the website’s chief editor, and on the following day arrested Abdirisak Gooth Nur, the outlet’s general director, according to Ahmed J. Farah and court documents seen by CPJ.
Police detained Abdikani and Abdirisak on allegations of publishing false news, anti-national propaganda, and insulting a public officer, but no formal charges have been filed against them, according to the court documents and Yahye Mohammed, executive director of the Somali Journalists Association, a local rights group, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
“Somaliland’s government has made a habit of cracking down on media that exposes alleged misconduct by the region’s political elites,” said CPJ’s Sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “Journalists should be allowed to cover allegations of corruption without intimidation. We call on the government to immediately release Abdikani Abdullahi Ahmed and Abdirisak Gooth Nur, and to allow HadhwanaagNews to operate without interference.”
Prior to blocking the website, police questioned HadhwanaagNews editors at the publication’s Hargeisa office on September 1, Ahmed told CPJ.
On September 15, a Hargeisa court rejected a bail application filed on Abdikani and Abdirisak’s behalf by the Somaliland Journalists Association, according to a copy of the court order seen by CPJ. In its ruling, the court argued that the defendants did not qualify for bail due to the nature of the allegations against them.
If charged and convicted, the journalists could face up to six months in prison for publishing false news, up to two years for insulting a public officer, up to three years for insulting an administrative or judicial body, and up to five years for anti-national propaganda, according to the court documents and Somaliland’s penal code.
CPJ emailed Somaliland Attorney General Hassan Aden, and sent him a message via messaging app, but did not receive a response. CPJ called Deputy Police Commissioner Abdirahman Libaan Fohle and Information Minister Mohamed Muse Dirie, but neither was reachable on their phones. CPJ also sent a text message to the information minister but did not receive a response. The Ministry of Information did not reply to CPJ’s email.
In an email to CPJ, Ali Ibrahim, the central bank governor, called the corruption allegations against him “baseless.” In a statement emailed to CPJ and in a Facebook post, Ali Ibrahim said that he had filed defamation and character assassination complaints against HadhwanaagNews, and accused Ahmed, the site’s owner, of extortion.
Ahmed told CPJ that those allegations are “completely false.”
Earlier this month, Somaliland authorities arrested Mohamed Osman Mireh, also known as Sayid, the owner of Horyaal 24 TV, and closed the station down, as CPJ reported at the time. On September 16, Sayid was released on bail, his lawyer Mohamed Ismail Essa told CPJ via phone.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The tenth paragraph of this alert has been updated to include comments that Ali Ibrahim, the central bank governor, emailed to CPJ.]