By Michael Walls – London 26th June 2014
To many observers (including the writer of this piece), the prison sentences handed down yesterday to two senior members of the Haatuf Media Group are disproportionate and flout the very idea of due legal process. The court also revoked Haatuf’s licence as a mediaoperator, thus effectively closing two significant Somaliland newspapers (the Somali-language Haatuf newspaper, and English-language Somaliland Times). The Chair of Haatuf, Yusuf Abdi Gaboobe, was jailed for three years, while Editor-in-Chief, Ahmed Ali Egeh, was sentenced to four years.
The heart of the sense of injustice lies in the use of an old but much harsher Penal Code for the prosecution, instead of the Press Law that was passed in 2004. In addition to that, there have been loud complaints that the court did not permit the accused to defend themselves, and the Human Rights Centre in Hargeisa note that the defendants’ lawyer was only permitted to attend a single day of the hearing.
But, of course, supporters of the government point to some important complexities in the case. Many in the media are resistant to the introduction of a more effective Media Law that would address some of the significant weaknesses in the 2004 legislation. Their reasoning is that they prefer the current arbitrary and periodically heavy-handed system to effective regulation of their activities. Even prison time is preferable to an established system in which press restraint and responsibility is a requirement of operation. Consequently, the quality of journalism is often poor, and misleading, or even unfairly injurious to its targets.
The reality is that there is validity in both positions. The government has continued – if anything, even worsened – the harassment of journalists and media outlets that was the hallmark of their predecessors. Hubaal newspaper was closed at the end of 2013, and numerous journalists have been jailed and other media operators closed or harassed.
But it is also true that journalistic integrity remains low in an environment in which defamation and libel laws are weak to non-existent and where journalists struggle to make a name for themselves in the face of intense competition for paid work. Editors and media owners have time and again shown themselves more than willing to use that situation for their own enrichment.
Somaliland desperately needs a media that is vibrant, strong and responsible. In order for that to become a reality, government harassment must stop, but just as important is the introduction of meaningful legislation that regulates the media in a proportionate and open way. Just as we have seen in the UK, those within government and media sometimes conspire to avoid the introduction of effective media controls. For its own sake, Somaliland needs to show the way by introducing effective and well-considered legislation that promotes both freedom of speech and high-quality and responsible journalism.
The current situation does Somaliland’s case for world attention no good at all: whatever the subtleties, the repeated harassment of journalists seriously undermines Somaliland’s claim to be a free, open and democratic society. Today is the anniversary of Somaliland’s 1960 independence from Britain. What better time to emphasise the great progress Somaliland has made by encouraging a free, fair and highquality media to flourish in a dynamic and open democratic society?
Michael Walls is an expert on Somaliland and Somalia affairs and also lecturer at the Development Planning Unit (DPU) of University College London (UCL).