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World Press Freedom Review
The year was a particularly brutal one for Somalia, a country without an effective central government since dictator Siad Barre was toppled in 1991. In December 2006, government forces backed by Ethiopian troops, many of which remained in the country thereafter, ousted the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an alliance that controlled Mogadishu in the past. Troops loyal to the transitional federal government (TFG) took control of most of the nation, but the transitional government became a target of attacks from Islamic militants and local militiamen, and the resulting violence caused both civilian deaths and displacement.
Several media rights organisations seized the opportunity of the power shift to call on Somali authorities to demonstrate their commitment to democratic society by respecting a four-point charter aiming to protect journalists, all too often targeted for their work during the country’s 15-year long conflict. Numerous incidents throughout 2007 demonstrated just how dangerous working conditions have become, and how urgently protective measures are needed. In fact, in terms of journalist deaths, only Iraq fared worse.
A proceeding stemming from reporting critical of the government showed the volatility of the environment within which journalists were required to perform their work. In January, publisher Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, editor Ali Abdi Dini and chief financial officer Hussein Kalif Abdullahi, all executives of Haatuf, an independent newspaper, were arrested in Somaliland, a northern breakaway state struggling to establish itself as a democratic enclave within the country since 1991. They were taken to a police station, and Abdullahi was beaten during the incident. Authorities provided no explanation for their arrest and subsequent detention.
Gabobe, reportedly in ill health, and Dini were eventually scheduled to appear before court in the first week of February. Instead, they were transferred to a prison outside of Hargeisa. Mohamed Omar Sheik, a Haatuf correspondent, who was arrested in mid-January and since detained in Hargeisa, was also transferred to the prison.
In March, a High Court suspended Haatuf’s license and imposed heavy prison sentences on the men at a hearing in Hargeisa. The charges against the journalists were based on a series of articles, published in late 2006 and early 2007, claiming that government appointments were often based on favouritism and that officials were using government vehicles for personal purposes. They were charged with violating Somalia’s 1962 Criminal Code, even though the provisions in question were overridden by legislation adopted in 2004.
Gabobe was sentenced to two years in prison for reporting false information about the government, discrediting the President and his family, and for "creating inter-communal tension." Dini and Sheik were sentenced to two years and five months in prison, for defaming the government, the President and his family. Another journalist, Ibrahim Mohamed Rashid Fara, who was tried in absentia, received the same sentence.
Somaliland President Dahir Riyale Kahin subsequently met with the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA), and indicated he was prepared to pardon Haatuf’s journalists. Haatuf also appeared as usual on 5 March. Gabobe, Dini and Sheik were eventually released in early April, after about three months in jail, although Farah’s whereabouts remained unknown.
In the meantime, incidents involving journalist assaults, arrests and brief detentions by security forces multiplied throughout the year, and often appeared to occur without any provocation whatsoever. Early in the year, Hussein Mohammed Abikar, correspondent for the privately owned Voice of the Holy Quran radio station, was arrested in southwestern Baidoa, where the transitional federal government has its seat, by soldiers loyal to that government. Abikar, whose materials were confiscated and who was held in an unknown location, was accused of spying.
In March, Shabelle Media Network (SMN) journalist Abdirahman Aladalla was beaten and held for several hours by TFG soldiers near Mogadishu, who asked him if he was an Islamist or Al-Qaeda member. On 14 March, security agents for the transitional government arrested Hassan Sade Dhaqane of HornAfrik radio, who was reporting on a security operation by Ugandan peacekeeping troops of the African Union near Mogadishu’s airport. He was subsequently held incommunicado, and the reason for his arrest remained unknown.
Mohammed Bashir Sheik Abdirahman, a Radio Shabelle reporter, and Osman Qoryoley, his driver, were arrested on 21 March at Mogadishu’s international airport, where Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi was scheduled to hold a news conference. Abdirahman was beaten by security agents and subsequently taken into custody. A second journalist, Muhiadin Omar Jimale, was also stopped but managed to escape.
Some of the incidents involved Ethiopian troops based in the country. For example, on 12 March, Ibraahim Ruush, Ismaciil Cali Cabdi and Max'ed Ibraahim Raage, three reporters for SMN, were assaulted and briefly detained by Mogadishu-based Ethiopian soldiers. The soldiers seized the journalists’ recording materials and beat them before releasing them an hour later.
On 8 April, Abdulkadir Ashir Nadara, of the privately owned TV station Universal TV, journalist Bashir Dirie Nalei and cameraman Hamud Mohammed Osman were arrested by soldiers at Mogadishu airport, after covering a press conference of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, whom Nadara confronted about supposed "favouritism" in his choice of officials. A presidential spokesman became irate, accusing the journalist of using "the language of terrorists". They were immediately arrested and detained.
Others were detained while covering government raids, such as Mohamed Hussein Jimaale, correspondent for the web-based Puntlandpost, arrested in Mogadishu along with seventy others when government troops swept a local market targeting suspected Islamist insurgents and illegal weapons. While most detainees were released shortly after their interrogation, Jimaale, who identified himself as a journalist, was transferred to another prison and released five days later. Covering fighting also proved risky. In late September, independent journalists Libaan Gahnug and Faysal Jama were arrested in Puntland after taking photographs of fighting between Puntland troops and forces from Somaliland. Gahnug was released the same day, but Jaama remained in detention.
The year’s developments also revealed a troubling pattern of shutdowns, both temporary and permanent, of radio stations, with those thought to maintain ties to the UIC particularly vulnerable to governmental interference. The declaration of martial law in Mogadishu in mid-January, for example, was soon followed by the closing of several TV and radio stations, including broadcasters who were often accused of pro-UIC bias. The shutdown came by way of National Security Agency letter ordering the stations to cease operations, and to report to a 16 January meeting with Colonel Ahamed Hassan Ali, its new Head Security Officer. The meeting consisted of several hours of negotiations. In the end, Somalia’s transitional federal government informed the station managers that they could resume broadcasting, in return for agreeing to work to "protect national security and interests and to cooperate with the government."
In late March, the Somali government targeted Al-Jazeera’s Mogadishu bureau, with the NSA again sending a letter to the station ordering it, without justification, to halt its operations. The decision followed an announcement by a former Somali transitional parliament speaker, who opposed Ethiopian military intervention in the Somali conflict, that Al-Jazeera had invited him to participate in a televised debate with the chairman of the ousted Islamist group. Somali Information Minister Madobe Nunow Mohamed was quoted as saying that "Al-Jazeera has conveyed the wrong messages to the world," and warning that any broadcasters who "distorted facts" would similarly be shut down.
In early June, HornAfrik Radio, the leading independent station Radio Shabelle, and the private station Radio IQK (Holy Quran Radio) were shut down by Information Ministry order. Ali Sharmake, HornAfrik’s co-director, was briefly detained, and Radio Shebelle’s offices searched. The crackdown occurred soon after these stations broadcast reports on house-to-house weapons searches carried out by authorities in Mogadishu, and how these affected local residents. According to the Information Ministry, the measures were imposed because the stations were "creating insecurity, supporting terrorism, violating freedom of expression, misleading the public and becoming anti-government."
On 17 September, the harassment took on a more violent form. On that day, security forces of the TNG raided Radio Shabelle Mogadishu’s office fired into the building and then detained 19 staff members at a local police station, claiming that a grenade was thrown at their patrol from the office. A police spokesman later indicated that this did not occur, and said the raid was carried out by "undisciplined elements" of the security forces. In mid-November, a military unit then raided their offices during another security sweep of the Bakara market, and ordered the station’s shutdown. Station manager Jafar "Kukay" Mohammed and programme director Abdirahman "Al-Adala" Yusuf were not told on what the order was based.
A few days later, the offices of Radio Banadir and Radio Simba were shut down under similar circumstances, after Mohamed "Dheere" Omar Habeeb, Mogadishu’s mayor, accused their reports of "undermining the government" and providing false information. The closures left only four private radio stations on air, many of which adjusted their reporting to avoid persecution. In the meantime, Mogadishu’s mayor also required all journalists and media groups to register with authorities within 30 days or be barred from the city In early December, the mayor reopened Radio Banadir, Radio Shabelle, and Radio Simba, emphasizing that stations should provide balanced coverage and focus on accuracy.
A particularly grave danger for journalists working in Somalia came by way of crossfire. While some caught in the middle of gunfights managed to escape unscathed, others payed dearly, including with their lives. In early April, unidentified gunmen in the Hiran region shot at a car carrying Mohammed Sheik Nur, a stringer for the Associated Press, Mohammed Ibrahim Isak, a stringer for New York Times, Abshir Ali Gabre, a journalist for Radio Jowhar and two freelance journalists, forcing them to pull over. The gunmen stole cameras, mobile phones and cash from the journalists.
On 24 August, Abdulkadir Mahad Moallim Kaskey, 20-year old correspondent for several radio stations, was killed when clan militiamen shot at the truck he was in. Officials of the local Geledle sub-clan, to which the gunmen allegedly belonged, vowed to hand over the perpetrators to provincial authorities.
Other journalists became the victims of more targeted shootings. On 16 February, three unidentified assailants in Baidoa shot Ali Mohammed Omar, newscaster for privately owned Radio Warsan. Omar was ordered to stop by the men and shot dead as he tried to flee. Radio Warsan had repeatedly been interfered with, closed several times and reopened only ten days before the attack following an agreement with the National Security Agency.
On 19 October, yet another murder made headlines, when media executive Bashir Nor Gedi, the vice chairperson of SMN, was assassinated by a group of unidentified gunmen. The men repeatedly shot Gedi in the head and chest in front of his Mogadishu home.
Media outlet offices were also both caught in the crossfire and specifically targeted by assailants. In late April, a surge in violence affected both civilians and media personnel. The offices of both the Global Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) in Mogadishu and HornAfrik Radio were hit by several shells, temporarily forcing the stations off the air and injuring two HornAfrik Radio employees. The headquarters of Ayaamaha, an independent daily, were hit by artillery fire. Several newspapers stopped publication because of the heavy fighting, while others struggled to continue the work short of their staff, many of whom had fled the city. In late June, a group of unidentified individuals threw petrol bombs into the Putland headquarters of Shacab, a private newspaper repeatedly subjected to harassment in the past. Nobody was injured during the incident, but printing equipment was damaged. Formerly a daily, the paper is no longer published regularly.
Amidst all the violence, one of this year’s very few positive developments occurred in late March, when the NUSOJ and the Information Ministry jointly organized a three-day conference in Baidoa. The conference, entitled the Conference on Media Development Policy, was attended by over 50 representatives from the government, parliament, human rights groups and media organisations. Discussions centred on the creation and regulation of an independent media and the protection of journalists. Information minister Madobe Nunow Mohammed indicated that the government would use the recommendations made during the conference as the basis for future media legislation, and a team was put in charge of monitoring their implementation.
Both in an October letter sent to all international and local non-governmental organizations and during an interview with Radio Sharbelle, Madobe Numow claimed his ministry was the "sole legitimate authority" in press matters, and specifically targeted the NUSOJ for its work, stating that the organisation had no right to represent and organise journalists.
The year ended with yet another troubling incident, which fortunately had a positive ending. On 16 December, five unidentified, armed men in Bossasso kidnapped French cameraman Gwen Le Gouil in northeastern Somalia. The journalist, freelancing with ARTE television, was in the country to cover human trafficking from Bossasso to Saudi Arabia via Yemen. His kidnappers demanded a ransom of around US$70,000. Puntland authorities tried to intervene on 17 December, but were fired at by the kidnappers. Eight days later, the kidnappers released the journalist to two traditional elders belonging to their clan, who turned him over to Puntland authorities.
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