Reporter Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi (center) is surrounded by plain-clothed, intelligence agents during a raid on MM Somali TV's office in Hargeisa on January 6, 2024. They interrupted a live debate and arrested the show's host, Mohamed Abdi Sheikh.
Reporter Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi (center) is surrounded by intelligence agents during a raid on MM Somali TV's office in Hargeisa, Somaliland, on January 6, 2024. The agents interrupted a live debate and arrested Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi, as well as the show's host, Mohamed Abdi Sheikh, and two others. (Screenshot: YouTube/MM Somali TV)

Somaliland journalist Mohamed Abdi Sheikh detained after discussing diplomatic row

Nairobi, January 17, 2024—The Committee to Protect Journalists on Wednesday called on authorities in the breakaway region of Somaliland to unconditionally release MM Somali TV journalist Mohamed Abdi Sheikh and to guarantee that members of the press can freely cover diplomatic affairs.

On January 6, intelligence agents raided the offices of MM Somali TV in the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, interrupting a live debate that the station was hosting on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, about a controversial port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland, according to a statement by MM Somali TV and news reports.

The agents arrested MM Somali TV chair Mohamed Abdi Sheikh, also known as Ilig, who was moderating the debate, Ilyas Abdinasir, a technician, and Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi, a reporter, according to those sources and a journalist familiar with the incident who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. Officers also arrested Hamse Fu’ad, a waiter at a neighboring restaurant, according to the journalist and a Facebook post by MM Somali TV.

Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi, Ilyas, and Hamse were released on January 9 without being charged, according to media reports, an MM Somali TV Facebook post and a statement by the Human Rights Center, a Hargeisa based non-governmental organization. Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi and Ilyas did not participate in the debate on X, which CPJ reviewed. The journalist who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity said he believed intelligence agents mistook the waiter Hamse for an MM Somali TV employee when they arrested him.

On January 13, Mohamed Abdi Sheikh appeared at a military court in Hargeisa, which ordered his indefinite remand, according to a Facebook post by MM Somali TV and a post on X by the Human Rights Center. The journalist was not charged with any crime, Guleid Ahmed Jama, a human rights lawyer following the case, told CPJ.

MM Somali TV chairperson Mohamed Abdi Sheikh (also known as Ilig) is seen speaking during past MM Somali TV programming.
MM Somali TV chairperson and moderator, Mohamed Abdi Sheikh, known as Ilig, speaking during a 2021 program. (Screenshot: YouTube/MM Somali TV)

In a letter dated January 14 and published on Facebook by MM Somali TV, Abdirahman Eid Mohamed, the head of the prosecutor’s office in the Marodi-Jeh region, under whose jurisdiction Hargeisa falls, said that the intelligence agency did not have the power to investigate or produce suspects before a court, and directed that the case be handed over to the police force’s Criminal investigation Department (CID).    

“Somaliland authorities have once more demonstrated their shockingly low tolerance for free political debate,” said CPJ sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo. “Mohamed Abdi Sheikh should be released unconditionally, and Somaliland authorities should desist from stifling media coverage of issues of public interest.”

CCTV footage capturing part of the raid and published by MM Somali TV on its Facebook page showed at least nine plain-clothed, intelligence personnel in the outlet’s office. One of the agents was recorded slapping the face of journalist Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi, also known as Andar.

The journalist who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity said that the intelligence officers confiscated equipment during the raid, including computers, cameras, and live broadcasting equipment.

In an interview following his release, reporter Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi said that moderator Mohamed Abdi Sheikh, who remains in detention, suffers from ulcers and did not eat during his first two nights behind bars.

On January 1, landlocked Ethiopia announced that it had signed a deal with Somaliland for the use of its Berbera port on the Gulf of Aden. The agreement triggered a diplomatic disagreement with Somalia, which accused Ethiopia of encroaching on its sovereignty. Somaliland’s 1991 declaration of independence from Somalia is not internationally recognized.

The January 6 live debate on X included two panelists arguing for and against the deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia. The audience was also given the opportunity to ask questions and contribute to the debate.

Panel host Mohamed Abdi Sheikh has been detained previously in connection to his journalism, including in April 2022, when he was arrested while covering a prison riot and was later sentenced to 16 months in prison, according to CPJ reporting at the time. He was released in July 2022 following a presidential pardon, according to news reports.

In an emailed statement to CPJ, Somaliland’s ministry of information said that Mohamed Abdi Sheikh was being “held for security reasons” without providing further details.

Somaliland attorney general Abdirahman Jama Hayaan declined to comment by phone and did not respond to questions sent via text message. Information minister Ali Hassan Mohamed did not respond to CPJ’s text messages. Emails to the Somaliland ministries of foreign affairs, interior, justice, and the office of the attorney general all returned error messages. CPJ could not find contact information for the National Intelligence Agency.