By Omar Faruk Osman
Another deadly and dangerous year has ended for the Somali media community, particularly journalists. Dozens were arrested, tried on trumped up charges and even murdered for doing their work.
According to the newly published annual report of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), the grim toll for 2014 was as follows: five media workers murdered in Mogadishu, Galkayo and Baidoa; seven journalists injured; 47 journalists arrested; five media houses attacked; and repressive legislations enacted by the federal government and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.
While the number of journalist murders has declined, there have been systematic and institutionalised attacks against independent media, an attempt to muzzle free speech or any critical debate in the country.
On 15 August 2014, for example, we witnessed the horrific raid, closure and numerous arrests at the leading independent media house, Shabelle Media Network.
While 19 journalists were initially arrested, four, including Shabelle chairman Abdimalik Yusuf, are currently standing trial on different charges, amongst them high treason.
A number of other prominent media houses, Haatuf newspaper and Horn Cable TV – both in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa – have also incurred the Somaliland government’s wrath.
Mogadishu and Galkayo still continue to be the deadliest cities in Somalia for journalists. But even in the southern-central city of Baidoa, a suicide bomber targeted a restaurant frequented by journalists, killing two and injuring three on 5 December.
In Puntland, journalists have had to protest for their rights and even for their back pay.
Many protesting journalists were put in police custody on 2 October, but their persistence paid off when the president of Puntland intervened and the government succumbed to the journalists’ demands.
Authorities also seem to be adopting a strategy of arresting and imprisoning journalists as a means of intimidation. Both the government of Somaliland and Somalia have raided and shut down media houses, arresting journalists that haven’t even been accused of anything.
While Somaliland uses the police to carry out these operations, the Federal Government of Somalia uses National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) forces.
Even as the new year started, NISA raided and made arrests at Radio Risaala and Radio Goobjoog in Mogadishu because of news reports broadcasted by these stations.
Draft media law
To add to the general atmosphere of media repression, the Federal Government’s Ministry of Information presented a restrictive draft media law in September 2014. If passed it will strip all journalists and independent media houses of the few rights they have.
It will establish a government-controlled media regulatory body, the National Media Council, to keep tabs on what is and what isn’t permissible in the Somali media space; media houses and journalists will be heavily fined; and any breaches of this law will be considered a criminal offense.
The lack of transparent and inclusive participatory consultations in preparation of the draft law has resulted in something unbelievably draconian – and it is this draft that is now before the federal parliament.
The draft national security law is also worrisome as excessive powers will be given to security forces, which may be used to curtail the right to freedom of expression, if the law is passed in its current form.
The arrest of former journalist and Al-Shabaab terrorist Hassan Hanafi in September 2014, who is believed to be behind the grisly killings of a number of journalists, is a major relief.
He will now face justice – some that he has denied his former colleagues.
But if Somali authorities, be they in Mogadishu, Somaliland, Puntland or other regional administrations, genuinely want to embody the democratic ideals they so keenly aspire, then they need to make urgent changes.
Draconian laws curtailing media freedom must be scrapped; an inclusive and transparent review of the draft media law must be initiated; impunity for violence targeting journalists must end, as must intimidation of journalists by government officials who are abusing their power; and finally, all journalists must have the right to freedom of association and assembly without fear or favour.