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Surviving Somalia’s most dangerous profession: A sit down with the Journalists’ Syndicate Director

Surviving Somalia’s most dangerous profession: A sit down with the Journalists’ Syndicate Director

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إقرأ باللغة العربية:

الصحافة تواجه القمع والإرهاب في الصومال... حوار مع نقيب الصحافيين

Perhaps a journalist fears the oppression and brutality of the authorities in his country, so he resorts to linguistic tricks to soften the impact of his words and achieve the goal at the same time, in line with the popular Arabic saying, "Half-blindness is better than total blindness", and hoping for a better tomorrow. This approach is familiar to those who work in journalism in Arab countries that rank low in the press freedom index.

But how does a journalist work in a country like Somalia, where there are multiple entities and parties that oppress journalists and where the killing of journalists with impunity is a common occurrence? When a journalist works in Somalia, they not only face government repression but also fear assassination by the Al-Shabaab, which is classified as a terrorist group, or militias that have become masters at killing during decades of statelessness, and then some of them become part of the modern state.

When a journalist works in Somalia, he not only faces government repression but also fears assassination by terrorist groups or militias that have become masters at killing during decades of statelessness, and then some of them become part of the modern state

Even as the hand of assassination has receded with the decline of Al-Shabaab's influence in large areas of the country, the authoritarian grip did not delay in compensating for that, with the return of a man who despises the press and excels in suppressing it – President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. During his first presidency (2012-2017), the most repressive laws against press freedom were enacted. And now, a year after assuming the presidency for the second time, 84 journalists are currently imprisoned. What will the state of media and journalism be during the remainder of his presidency?

Raseef22 interviewed Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, the Secretary-General of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), who was arrested by the authorities in October 2022 and faced charges that have often been used to justify these oppressive practices, such as "spreading false news, insulting the nation and the state, and violating the instructions of the authorities." Mumin was released after spending 11 days in a notorious prison, but he was later sentenced to two months in prison, even though the sentence was not implemented in response to international pressure, and he subsequently left his country for Kenya for medical treatment and to avoid further arrest.

According to a report by Reporters Without Borders on the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Somalia ranks 141 out of 180 countries. Fifty journalists have been killed in Somalia since 2010 up until 2022, and more than 80 journalists have been murdered since the collapse of the central state in 1991.

How would you describe the reality of journalistic work in Somalia during the reign of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud?

Journalists in Somalia face extremely difficult conditions, and the country remains the most dangerous place for journalists in Africa. After President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's reelection for a second (non-consecutive) presidential term, the state of press freedom deteriorated, and journalists faced more serious attacks by security forces.

As documented by the Somali Journalists Syndicate, 84 journalists were arrested in 2022, making it one of the most challenging years for local journalists. In the same year, we documented the killing of two prominent journalists, the injury of 10 others, and the closure of seven media stations and news websites by the government.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has taken several decisions to suppress independent media, imposing new directives on journalistic work by the Ministry of Information and targeting media professionals. This led to them raiding the union office and arresting me.

What we witness leads us to describe the behavior of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's government towards the press and media as that of a "mafia" or "gang". This is not an exaggeration, as many security personnel in the official authorities are either former members of criminal groups or former members of Al-Shabaab, which is classified as a terrorist group.

Do you have statistics on the victims of journalistic work in Somalia since the establishment of the federal state? And is there a count of the number of journalists in prison in cases related to freedom of expression?

Yes, 53 journalists were arrested in 2019, 56 journalists in 2020, 65 journalists in 2021, and 84 journalists in 2022, indicating an increasing trend of arrests targeting journalists in the country for political reasons. In the past five years, 14 journalists have been killed. I would also like to mention a particular case, which is the arrest of prominent journalist Boshaaro Ali Mohamed in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.

What are the challenges and obstacles facing journalistic work in Somalia?

The challenges are multi-layered. Journalists are targeted and killed simply for writing or broadcasting critical news reports. Those who investigate human rights violations and corruption-related issues are targeted in particular.

Suppression and targeting are practiced by both the Somali Police and National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) and the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, while clan militias also target journalists. It is sad that journalists are targeted by everyone. There is no safe place for us in our own country.

In such an environment, the risks increase for female journalists. What are the challenges facing women in journalism in Somalia?

In addition to the risks faced by journalists in the workplace in general, female journalists face gender-based risks such as sexual harassment. It is not safe for female journalists to move around in many places to carry out their work. In addition to the challenges shared by women and men in journalism, such as the lack of healthcare coverage and life insurance, which places the burden of their absence on the family that loses its main provider, on top of the suffering of losing him as a family member.

Somalia is considered one of the most dangerous countries for the lives of journalists, both male and female. What are the reasons behind that?

Journalists in Somalia face unimaginable physical danger; it is the most perilous country for journalists. Since 1992, more than 80 journalists have been killed, and not all of these crimes have been solved. The killers still roam freely in the country. The danger of the journalistic work environment increases due to the policy of impunity and significant criticism of the press and journalists by government officials.

Let's move on to the threat of terrorism. With the terrorist group Al-Shabaab classified as a terrorist organization controlling large areas of the country and its ability to reach any place, how does that pose a threat to journalism?

Al-Shabaab remains the main group responsible for killing journalists in Somalia. The group has repeatedly threatened journalists and forced dozens to flee the country out of fear for their safety. Unfortunately, no one can arrest Al-Shabaab members for killing or threatening journalists. On the other hand, we are concerned because Al-Shabaab members who have joined the government have not been held accountable for their crimes against the media and society in general.

With the start of the military operations against Al-Shabaab in August 2022, an increase in repression against the media has been observed. Will the government employ these military operations against the group to suppress the press and media?

Yes, the Somali government is using the war against Al-Shabaab as an excuse to control the media and suppress journalists. In October 2022, the Ministry of Information issued directives that included comprehensive restrictions on media and journalistic work and limitations on journalists' access to information.

Government restrictions in Somalia include prohibiting any independent media coverage of Al-Shabaab's activities, while allowing only what is published by official media outlets. Journalists are prohibited from addressing violations committed by government forces, and those who do face the threat of being charged with "propaganda against the state or terrorism." As a result, dozens of journalists have fled the country to ensure their safety and continue their work professionally.

Government restrictions in Somalia include prohibiting any independent media coverage of Al-Shabaab's activities, while allowing only what is published by official media outlets. Journalists are prohibited from addressing violations committed by government forces, and those who do face the threat of being charged with "propaganda against the state or terrorism." As a result, dozens of journalists have fled the country to ensure their safety and continue their work professionally.

Under the tribal and clan-based political system and the wide-ranging powers granted to each state in the federal system, without adhering to the basic rights outlined in the transitional constitution, how is the legislative environment related to journalistic work?

Somalia operates under one of the most repressive laws that prohibit independent media coverage, almost classifying freedom of expression as a crime. The Media Law (2020 Amendment) includes provisions that threaten human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press, granting the government extensive powers and excessive oversight over media institutions.

The provisions related to criminal sanctions are formulated in a vague manner, granting law enforcement authorities wide leeway in misusing the law. These provisions include prohibitions such as publishing issues conflicting with national interest, disseminating false information, incitement to violence, and clan affiliation. Additionally, journalists' rights to protect their sources are confiscated, and the Ministry of Information has the power to impose administrative restrictions on the media, leading to broad censorship of media outlets.

Violation of these provisions, which are subject to misinterpretation and exploitation by the authorities, exposes journalists to imprisonment and hefty fines. It is unfortunate that journalists in Somalia live in fear in their own country and resort either to self-censorship or leaving the country.

We at the Somali Journalists Syndicate urge federal and local authorities to lift the restrictions on access to information by government and non-governmental entities and to replace the 1963 Penal Code, established during the Italian colonial era, with a code that aligns with human rights. It is important to note that this law prohibits any criticism of the government, granting it the authority to punish any journalist who does not work in accordance with its interests.

Somalia tops the list of the most corrupt countries. How do journalists operate amidst widespread corruption and bribery, especially within the government, security, and military sectors?

Reporting on corruption and human rights violations is prohibited in Somalia. For example, publishing about corruption during the distribution of humanitarian aid is prohibited because those involved are government officials. Similarly, reporting on rape crimes and violations against women is not allowed, despite the widespread prevalence of such crimes in the country.

Somalia faces many challenges, including a weak governance system, corruption, societal division, clans, and widespread corruption, like when government officials embezzled nearly half of the country's resources and donations provided by the international community

As a Somali citizen and journalist, what are the most important challenges facing the federal state in Somalia in political, constitutional, and security issues?

Somalia faces several major challenges, including a weak governance system due to corruption and a lack of commitment to the rule of law, societal division based on clan affiliation, and widespread corruption, exemplified by the embezzlement by government officials of nearly half of the country's resources from taxes and donations provided by the international community. Additionally, there are security challenges and an increase in civilian casualties in terrorist attacks and incidents of gunfire. Al-Shabaab is responsible for most of these, alongside the responsibility borne by government forces that suffer from a lack of discipline, as many of their members were former members of clan militias or are affiliated with former warlords, as well as those who were part of Al-Shabaab.

Furthermore, there is a humanitarian crisis, as the country is experiencing the worst drought in 40 years, along with ongoing famine and armed conflict, leaving 8 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

How do you evaluate the federal system in Somalia, given the recurring disturbances in the relationship between Mogadishu and the states?

The relationship between the federal government and regional states isn't good for several reasons. Since the civil war, there has been no proper reconciliation among the clans, and each clan has its own regional administration. Even the federal authority in Mogadishu is limited to a few clans. This has fueled a lack of trust between regional administrations and the capital, in light of the delay in transitioning from the country's provisional, non-consensual constitution to a permanent constitution that enjoys consensus.

The biggest problem is that those in federal and state power were not elected by the people, and they are determined to remain in power in any way possible. It is not in their interest to agree on a system that respects the rights of the people, and as long as this situation persists, the relationship between Mogadishu and the states will remain tense.

You were imprisoned by government orders. What were the reasons for that incident and what were the circumstances?

I was unlawfully arrested and placed in an underground cell on October 11, 2022, after security forces raided the office of the Somali Journalists Syndicate. This happened the day after the syndicate, along with media and press organizations, issued a joint statement condemning the government-imposed restrictions on press freedom. As for targeting me personally, it was because the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud wanted to silence the media in Somalia, and they knew that I was at the forefront of media defenders, so they arrested me.

To illustrate the bleak picture facing the media under Hassan Sheikh's rule, I will mention the names of the government officials responsible for the raid on the syndicate office and my arrest, along with their backgrounds. They are Abdulrahman Youssef, the Deputy Minister of Information, who is a former member of terrorist groups, Mahad Salad, the National Intelligence Chief, the Minister of State for the Presidency, and the Minister of Justice. Each one of them has a long record of corruption, and that is why they fight the existence of a free press that threatens their status, positions and gains.

Tell us about the establishment of the Somali Journalists Syndicate, its goals, and its role in protecting journalists. Does it have a regulating law? Is it recognized by the government?

The Somali Journalists Syndicate is a national organization for journalists working in Somalia. It is a registered organization at the national level and has a growing number of journalists, both men and women, affiliated with it. Its tasks include protecting journalists who are at risk and working to create a safe and free working environment. In the past year alone, we have trained over 300 journalists in all regions of the country, thanks to support from partners. We have also been providing legal support to journalists facing cases in court since 2020.

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