Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

PRESS FREEDOM DAY-SOMALIA: Going Without a Byline

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, May 3 2007 (IPS) - The comment is chilling under the best of circumstances, and on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), even more so: “I often tell people that I am a private English teacher or a computer technician. Being known as a journalist might put one’s life on the line…I am forced to lie to defend my life.”

The reporter in question is a Somali who works for the international media from his country’s capital, Mogadishu. In an interview with IPS, he told of a colleague employed by a global broadcaster who receives two to three phone calls every day from people threatening to kill him. Another journalist, who worked for the same broadcaster, was forced to flee Somalia after being attacked; he now lives in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

“I operate undercover,” the journalist added, “and most of my articles are in Swahili, a few in English – without a byline.”

Almost a year ago, IPS reported on the hazardous conditions under which journalists operate in Somalia, and about fears that the situation might grow worse if tensions between a transitional government and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) led to all out civil war (see ‘MEDIA-SOMALIA: “Any Person Can Kill You…’).

Several months later, these concerns appear to have been justified.

Another name has been added to the list of 14 journalists already killed in Somalia. Radio presenter and union activist Ali Mohammed Omar was shot dead in the government-controlled town of Baidoa, south-western Somalia, in February by unidentified assailants. He worked for Warsan Radio, a private station that the International Federation of Journalists described as “influential” in a Feb. 19 press release about Omar’s death, and which had previously been closed several times by authorities.


Somalia has also experienced fighting in 2007 viewed as the worst in 15 years, as government troops backed by Ethiopian forces battled UIC and clan militants in Mogadishu – the conflict particularly intense in March. This came after the UIC was driven from the capital by the Ethiopian military in December, with assistance from the United States.

Two privately-owned broadcast stations in Mogadishu are said to have been destroyed in the violence, in April, and several reporters injured. The premises of HornAfrik television and radio and of the Global Broadcasting Corporation fell victim to indiscriminate shelling by both sides to the conflict that has elicited international condemnation.

A month earlier, the Mogadishu bureau of Qatar-based television network Al-Jazeera was shut down, reportedly on orders from the transitional government.

In February, there were also reports of government announcing its intention to censor three independent broadcasters over coverage of violence in the capital. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists notes on its website that restrictions were placed on reporting about the administration’s military operations and on civilian flight from Mogadishu. Hundreds are said to have been killed in the conflict that has wracked the city, while up to 400,000 are estimated to have been displaced.

“There is no easy access to a story; movement is limited by the high level of insecurity. Government officials have made things worse,” said the Somali journalist interviewed by IPS. “They are obstructing journalists from reporting on the real events like people fleeing violence, shelling of hospitals and residential places. They want to dictate what should be reported.”

UIC officials have, in turn, come under fire for disregarding press freedom.

An Oct. 11 statement from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontiers, RSF) condemned 13 rules of conduct that were issued to independent media by the UIC last year. The regulations stipulated, in part, that the media were not to publish material deemed contrary to Islam, that journalists were not to refer to Muslims as “terrorists” and “extremists” – and that media had to register with an Islamic courts information bureau.

“The result of this draconian charter…would be a gagged, obedient press, one constrained by threats to sing the praises of the Islamic courts and their vision of the world and Somalia,” RSF noted.

Various additional abuses of press freedom by all sides have also taken place, say the National Union of Somali Journalists and other groups, including through the detention and harassment of journalists.

Somalia’s interim administration, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf, was set up in 2004 after several years of negotiations in Kenya – this in a bid to restore order to the Horn of Africa state, which had been without a government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991. However, it proved unable to exert authority over the country, which had fallen into the hands of faction leaders after Barre’s departure.

The UIC, in contrast, took control of Mogadishu in June 2006, as well as large parts of southern Somalia.

U.S. and Ethiopian authorities have accused the Islamic courts of having ties with the Al Qaeda terrorist network – a charged denied by the UIC – while reports indicate that Addis Ababa also fears aspirations on the part of Islamic militants to control the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Somalia and Ethiopia have previously come to blows over ownership of Ogaden, leading to deep antipathy towards Ethiopia on the part of certain Somalis – notably the Hawiye clan, which has backed the UIC in fighting government and Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu.

As IPS reported earlier this week, fighting has decreased in Somalia of late (see ‘SOMALIA: Despite Lull in Fighting, Stability Looks Remote’); African Union peacekeepers deployed in Mogadishu were able to patrol the city for the first time this week.

Nonetheless, prospects for lasting peace are dim in view of many observers. Government may now be operating from Mogadishu, but it remains dependent on its Ethiopian backers, while the UIC is still a force to be reckoned with.

 
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