Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

MEDIA-SOMALIA: “Any Person Can Kill You…”

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jul 23 2006 (IPS) - Martin Adler, 2006; Kate Peyton, 2005; Duniya Muhyadin Nur, 2005; Abdullahi Madkeer, 2003; Ahmed Kafi Awale, 2000; Marcello Palmisano, 1995; Miran Krovatin, 1994; Ilaria Alpi, 1994; Pierre Anceaux, 1994; Jean-Claude Jumel, 1993; Hansi Krauss, 1993; Hosea Maina, 1993; Dan Eldon, 1993; Anthony Macharia, 1993*.

The list of journalists killed in Somalia since the overthrow of dictator Muhammad Siad Barre in 1991 contains 14 names. And, it risks growing longer as the country teeters on the brink of renewed large-scale conflict, with the breakdown of talks between an interim government and Islamic militants grouped under the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

Dangerous conditions for reporters also make it consistently difficult to cover events in a part of the world that should arguably be one of the prime targets of media attention, for its alleged role in the war on terror – and its potential to destabilise other East African countries.

“No, no, no, not now – maybe some years in the future, but not today or tomorrow,” said Xan Rice, a reporter with a British newspaper, ‘The Guardian’, when asked by IPS whether he planned to return to Somalia any time soon.

Rice witnessed the killing of Martin Adler, a Swedish freelancer who was shot by an unidentified gunman on Jun. 23, 2006, in the Somali capital of Mogadishu while covering a UIC demonstration.

“It is extremely difficult to work from there,” Rice added. “Any time you are in contact with the members of the public, there is danger – there is real danger. Any person can kill you: you do not know who will do it, or which side the bullet will come from.”

For local reporters who do not have the luxury of a ticket out of Somalia, matters can be even worse.

“There is constant violation of Somali journalists’ rights. Each year, journalists are being arrested, jailed, tortured and even killed,” one local reporter told IPS from Mogadishu.

As a result, “There are very few notable journalists who dare provide critical coverage, which is opposed by the big shots…(And) they face the wrath of those unhappy with their coverage.”

Local journalists can be targeted even if they file for the international press, added the Mogadishu reporter. This leads them to steer clear of putting their names to articles, and they try to prevent their identities from becoming known while sourcing information for features.

The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) paints a similar picture in its ‘Annual Press Freedom Report’ for 2005.

“Although large spectrums of both print and electronic media are existing currently…all of the Somali media are struggling for continued existence,” the documents states.

“Only this year (the) National Union of Somali Journalists monitored, investigated and reported on over 15 cases of murdered reporters, detained journalists, suspended media institutions, censored media houses and constant intimidations against journalists.”

At the time of its 2005 report, the NUSOJ noted that there were 17 radio stations and 60 newspapers in Somalia, as well as more than 200 websites providing news about the country. According to the union, these sites were mainly operated from abroad.

While those who are guilty of killing and abusing journalists escape punishment in many instances, there are cases where they have been made accountable, says rights watchdog Amnesty International.

In a message to the NUSOJ last week on the occasion of the union’s first general assembly, Amnesty commended it for setting up systems to gather information and report on contraventions of media freedom.

“This process, supported by international media freedom organisations, has undoubtedly been successful on several occasions. The authorities in many cases listened to the complaints and were open to discussing them, investigated the reported abuses and reportedly took action to remedy them,” added the rights organisation.

Nonetheless, concerns about press freedom in Somalia are bound to grow with reports of the first ever clash between the transitional government led by President Abdullahi Yusuf and Islamic militants, Saturday.

This followed the Jul. 20 arrival of Ethiopian troops in Baidoa to support Yusuf’s administration. The interim government is based in the south-central town, as it has proved too weak to establish a presence in Mogadishu.

Ethiopia is also reported to have deployed troops in the south-western town of Waajid, and taken control of the airstrip there. Relations between Ethiopia and Somalia have long been troubled: the two countries waged war in the late 1970s over control of the Ogaden region, a part of Ethiopia that Addis Ababa reportedly fears Islamic militants may lay claim to.

The presence of Ethiopian forces has brought negotiations between Somalia’s government and the UIC, scheduled to resume in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum this weekend, to a grinding halt. Islamic militants now threaten a “jihad”, or holy war, against Ethiopia.

Talks were initiated after the militants seized control of Mogadishu last month from faction leaders widely reported to be backed by the United States, which has voiced fears about the UIC’s possible links with al Qaeda (see: ‘POLITICS-SOMALIA: Bush Hawks Down’, Jun. 6).

UIC leaders deny any such ties, saying they simply wish to restore law and order to Somalia. The country has been at the mercy of warring faction leaders since Siad Barre was toppled, existing without a government for more than a decade. Yusuf’s administration was only set up in 2004, in Kenya.

In addition to taking Mogadishu after about five months of fighting, the UIC has established control in most of southern Somalia, and reportedly has Baidoa in its sights.

Hundreds of lives have been lost over past months, with over 17,000 displaced in the conflict, according to the United Nations.

* Names obtained from the website of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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