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Mission Journal: Fewer arrests but fear still lingers for Somaliland's press

Residents sit under Somaliland's Independence memorial in Hargeisa. Journalists there say conditions are improving, but they remain wary. (Reuters/Feisal Omar)

Conditions for the press in the semi-autonomous republic of Somaliland may, on the surface, appear to be improving. But without a functioning media law to lend protection, and pending legislative elections, journalists remain wary of state harassment.

Authorities have, for instance, decreased the rate and duration of arbitrary detentions of journalists, Mohamoud Abdi Jama, chairman of the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA), told me during a U.N.-led trip in March to meet officials, journalists, and civil society actors in the capital, Hargeisa. The purpose of the visit by U.N. agencies and media-related non-profit organisations was to assess the needs and conditions of the press in Somaliland. In 2012, when CPJ last visited Hargeisa, hardly a week would pass without authorities detaining journalists for unfavourable coverage. According to the association's chairman, between January and April 1 nine journalists were detained: half of what CPJ recorded over the same period in 2012.

Both Deputy-Minister of Information Shukri Harir Ismail and Mohamoud told me the flurry of arrests reduced due to greater interaction and negotiation with authorities. "This has also led to less long-term detentions," Mohamoud said, to the point where in "most cases journalists are held for a few hours."

Mohamoud Abdi Jama, chairman of the Somaliland Journalists Association, says there have been fewer arbitrary arrests. (CPJ)

But there are exceptions. One of the cases raised by SOLJA members and the Somaliland human rights organization, Human Rights Center, was that of Ahmed Saed Mohamed, a reporter for the privately owned Kalsan TV, who was arrested by authorities in Berbera, and held for five days without charge this month for a story concerning an alleged management dispute between the Berbera Port Authority and the regional finance department. Members of the journalist association and human rights group told me Ahmed's story was accurate and many news websites had also covered the issue. CPJ could not independently verify if the allegations had been reported by other outlets.

In at least one other case a journalist's arrest followed irresponsible reporting. In February a freelance journalist reported that an arms shipment was allegedly sent directly to the president's office, and was subsequently detained for five days, Mohamoud Abdi Jama and two other SOLJA members told me. SOLJA managed to successfully arbitrate for his release, the chairman told me. He said that during the arbitration process, the reporter, a new recruit to journalism, admitted the report was false.

Many journalists in Somaliland lack training and professional guidance. While Somaliland boasts 18 universities, none harbour journalism programs, M.M. Alkhaliili, president of New Generation University College, said. In several cases, media owners are not journalists but use their media houses for their own political agenda, said Khadar Osman, Associate Director of the Social Research and Development Institute in Hargeisa. As in many developing countries, journalists are often paid to write particular political views to the point where a culture of bribery and misinformation becomes the norm. "We have a very vibrant media," Minister of Planning Saad Ali Shire said, "but unfortunately many journalists see the media as a way of earning a living and not a profession."

There is another less seemly reason authorities are targeting the press less than in the past: journalists are too scared to report freely. "The press has been scared into silence," Farhan Ali Ahmed, chairman of the privately owned HornCable TV, said. In January, the Rapid Reaction Unit, a paramilitary police force designed to counter terrorism, raided Farhan's home at 4 a.m. and questioned him over a November 2014 report on nepotism in the mining ministry, he told me. The raid by the unit, widely reported in Somalia to be UK-funded, was a clear case of intimidation designed to silence the station's coverage, Farhan said. British authorities have refused in reports to confirm or deny assisting the paramilitary force.

Somaliland journalists have good reason to be apprehensive about critical reporting; the government has summarily suspended four newspapers indefinitely in the past 14 months. On December 2013 police raided and shuttered the offices of the privately owned newspaper Hubaal and its sister English-language weekly The Independent, its editor, Hassan Hussein Abdullahi, said. Since then, authorities have allowed the media outlet to re-open three times but the decision is always immediately reversed, Hubaal Managing Director Mohamed Ahmed Jama said. The publications have, in effect, been closed for 13 months and the journalists continue to pay the rent and electricity bills, Hassan told me. The two journalists are facing criminal defamation charges for a series of articles published in 2013 that accuse the government of nepotism and misuse of office. "We have become an example for other media houses," Hassan told me. "The government is intentionally using us to scare others into silence."

On April 7 last year police indefinitely shut down two more privately owned newspapers, Haatuf and its English-language sister publication Somaliland Times. Without being given the chance to defend themselves, a Hargeisa court in May charged the chairman of the Haatuf Media Group, Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, and Chief Editor Ahmed Ali Ege with libel and false publication, their defense lawyer Hassan Ali said. The media house was fined about US$8,000 and Yusuf and Ahmed were sentenced to four and three years in prison respectively, according to CPJ research. They spent two weeks in jail before being released on presidential pardon. "The pardon came just days before the president was scheduled to visit the U.K.," Ahmed Ali Ege said. "We suspect the pardon was linked to this trip."

The charges stemmed from a complaint filed by Hussein Abdi Duale, Somaliland's Energy Minister, after the papers published a series of articles alleging corruption and mishandling of finances within the ministry, according to local reports. Authorities took the censorship of Haatuf one step further than Hubaal by ordering telecommunication companies to block its website in April last year, Ahmed Ali Ege added. The Haatuf website is now blocked domestically but can still be accessed internationally. Hubaal continues online as a news website.

In both cases, the penal code was used without reference to the 2004 press law. "The penal code is routinely used to arrest journalists," lawyer and Human Rights Centre chairman Guleid Ahmed told me. "The constitution protects press freedom but the penal code pre-dates the constitution." Although passed in 2004, the press law has never been applied. The government claims the law requires more amendments before it can be utilized. A statutory press regulator needs to be introduced in the legislation, Information Ministry Director General Mohamed Elmi Aden said, with representatives from both the government and the media. House Speaker Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi told me he hopes the law will be reviewed in July, but local journalists I spoke to suspect amendments will not take place until elections are held.

Somaliland was meant to hold presidential elections in June. Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Bihi Yonis told our visiting group the elections were postponed due to delays by the National Electoral Commission voter registration process, but several local journalists I spoke to suspect authorities delayed holding them due to alleged diminishing popularity of the ruling party.

A new date for elections has not yet been set, but even if they were held tomorrow, the chance for the public to receive informed, balanced information seem slim, especially for those outside Hargeisa. Privately owned radio stations are prohibited in Somaliland through government control of licenses, inducing the majority of the public to listen to the state-run Radio Hargeisa. Mohamed Elmi told me the government will never allow privately owned stations because of what he described, without giving specific examples, as irresponsible reporting from privately owned stations in Mogadishu.

Technically, private radio stations are not banned by law in Somaliland, according to House Speaker and lead opposition presidential candidate Abdirahman. But since the government controls licenses and frequencies, they remain effectively so.

In November authorities closed the offices and shuttered the opposition-led, clandestine privately owned Radio Baadi Goob, which launched in early 2014, according to news reports. The closure occurred despite the ruling Kulmiye party relying on a covert, privately run radio named Horyaal, to assist in its 2010 electoral victory, news reports said.

Outside of Hargeisa, few can afford television sets and 90 percent of newspapers do not reach outside the capital, media consultant and former BBC reporter Yoonis Ali Nur told me. Without access to independent radio, television or newspapers many rely on the state radio for electoral coverage. "For four weeks the National Electoral Commission allows three political parties to air their views, present their campaigns through Radio Hargeisa ahead of elections," said Abddirahman. "But the rest of the year it is 100 percent government."

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