A first for Somalia: New report on the state of media freedom in the country - where journalism can be a death wish

"The authorities, public, and the militants are all hostile to us. We are like fish in poisonous waters, we can be attacked or killed at any time."

A NEW report into the state of media freedom in Somalia by Human Rights Watch is out.

Released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), “‘Like Fish in Poisonous Waters’: Attacks on Media Freedom in Somalia”, is the first report of its kind that looks at the state of the media throughout the entire country.

One thing that stands out is the vast challenges that journalists and media houses face with regards to their safety, livelihoods and integrity. As one journalist working in Galkayo said, “The authorities, the public, and the militants are all hostile to us. We are like fish in poisonous waters, we can be attacked or killed at any time.”

The report, based on over 50 interviews with journalists, editors, and media directors working across south-central Somalia and Puntland, documents killings, threats and arbitrary detention of journalists since 2014. 

It found that since 2014, 10 journalists have been killed – four in apparent targeted attacks – and six journalists have survived assassination attempts. Others have been injured while reporting. Dozens have been arbitrarily detained, a handful prosecuted, and scores have received threatening phone calls and text messages, warning them to change their reporting or face consequences. At least 70 Somali journalists went into exile between 2008 and mid-2013. 

Attacked from all sides

These high figures are because the media in Somalia is being attacked from all sides; the government, the interim regional administrations, and Al-Shabaab have all sought to manipulate the media to shape public opinion and enhance their power at a heavy cost to media freedom and the safety and security of journalists. 

This has been a common thread in Somalia’s media history. 

The report says that during the Siad Barre regime from 1969 to 1991, independent media was largely nonexistent and state control over the media was stringent. 

In the 1990s, warlords vying for power in Mogadishu established many newspapers and radio stations for propaganda purposes. During the 2000s, newspapers declined, the radio was the most widespread medium for news, and a few local and satellite TV stations were established. In this period, the media is reported to have been used as a tool by parties to the conflict and journalists were targeted with violence.

Since 2012, following the formal withdrawal of Al-Shabaab from Mogadishu,
the selection of a new federal government, and the return of many people from the diaspora, many new radio stations were established in towns throughout south-central Somalia. By 2015, there were about 50 radio stations broadcasting across south-central Somalia and Puntland. 

Today, while Al-Shabaab has posed the main threat to the media, journalists have come under attack from a range of state and other non-state actors. 

Many journalists who spoke to Human Rights Watch described receiving threats and warnings directly from government and security officials, as well as anonymous threats. They are threatened by phone and text messages, on occasion via email or Facebook. Government officials have also threatened journalists in person.

On top of all this, in January 2016 Somali President Hassan Sheikh signed off on a new media law that risks further hampering free expression. While the law offers some positive aspects, many restrictions on the media are broad and vague, including restrictions on “propaganda against the dignity of a citizen, individuals or government institutions.” 

Journalists continue to live in fear because the government authorities fail to adequately investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses. 

Government investigations and prosecutions of targeted attacks on journalists have been sporadic, and the only prosecutions that have taken place have been for killings claimed or believed to have been carried out by Al-Shabaab. Human Rights Watch identified only one killing of a journalist since 2014 that resulted in a prosecution. 

Self-Censorship

Because many attacks go un-investigated, there has been speculation about the identity of the perpetrators and this means, combined with the ambiguous nature of the country’s penal code, Somali journalists and media editors respond with self-censorship as a survival mechanism, steering clear of reporting on sensitive issues.

On top of this, the majority of journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch were under 25 years of age which highlights how young many journalists currently operating in Somalia are. Most had only completed high school, and had only ad-hoc journalism training, if any at all.

This puts them in a vulnerable position in terms of their journalistic integrity as most earn very little or work for free. It was found that media house owners would also often rely on volunteers to work for them and they can’t complain or they would risk being replaced. Journalists therefore rely heavily on trainings and bribes (commonly known as “sharuur,”) from government officials, clan representatives and even nongovernmental organisations, as a way of making a living.

The “wild west” that is Somalia’s media ecosystem has a long way to go before it can be called free or safe. Unfortunately its fate is so deeply tied to the conflict and powers at play in the country that this doesn’t look likely to happen any time soon. 

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