Journalism in Somalia: booming but beset by dangers – By Jay Bahadur
MOGADISHU”” Mohamed Abdi Warsame’s hand shakes as he places it on my knee. “Some say my brother was killed over a woman,” he says. “That’s not true. He was killed for the sake of the truth.”
After the evening prayer on October 21, 2012, Mohamed’s brother, a local journalist named Yusuf Warsame, was leaving a mosque in Mogadishu’s Medina neighborhood. As he made his way to a pharmacy to find relief for an earache, two pistol-wielding men stepped out of a doorway and shot him multiple times in the back.
Mohamed was turning a corner onto the same street when the shots rang out; close enough to witness the gunmen fleeing the scene.
“I saw them with my own eyes,” he says. “But I was too far away to gaze on their faces.”
Yusuf succumbed to his injuries one week later in nearby Medina Hospital, becoming the 11th Somali journalist to be assassinated in 2012. He was 22 years old. Though the attack occurred in broad daylight, no witnesses came forward, and no arrest has been made. Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, al-Shabab, is often fingered for killing journalists, but there is rarely enough evidence to determine guilt.
“The ones responsible are ‘unknown gunmen,'” Mohamed says. “We don’t know who they are. A government gang, al-Shabab…we just don’t know.”
Since the beginning of 2013, 23 local journalists have been murdered in Somalia, making it the most dangerous country on the African continent for media workers. Five of the victims worked for Shabelle Media Network, comprised of Shabelle Radio – one of Mogadishu’s most popular stations – as well as its online arm, Shabelle.net. Shabelle’s director, Abdi Mohamed Ismaiil, says he gets about two or three death threats per week, and they tend to adhere to a standard template.
“They tell us we’re working against Islam,” he says, puffing casually on a cigarette. “They describe the kind of car you drive, what you’re wearing — ‘blue t-shirt, black jeans,’ for example — even how you’re standing. When you look around, no one is there.”
Ismaiil says people sometimes prank-call Shabelle staff and pretend to be with al-Shabab, a joke that doesn’t sit well. “Unfortunately there’s no law against that in this country.”
Mohamed, now 19, works as a journalist for Shabelle.net, the same position his brother once held. And it is clear that his brother’s murder has left its mark. When I snap a photo of him typing furiously at his keyboard in the company’s computer lab, he jumps halfway out of his chair.
“Not my face, not my face!”
Mohamed still lives in Medina — the Mogadishu neighbourhood where the majority of journalist assassinations have taken place — and he is terrified of being identified.
“I still haven’t received any death threats,” he says. “But when your brother is killed, you become afraid. The next time I go outside, will they shoot me?”
The following day, he tells me, he’ll be moving into Shabelle headquarters full time, joining the few dozen journalists living in cramped quarters mostly on the building’s rooftop. Many barely go outside for fear of being gunned down, conducting the business of news gathering through mobile phone calls with networks of local tipsters. Moving around the city after dark is considered tantamount to suicide.
Shabelle’s imposing headquarters stands only a few hundred yards outside Mogadishu’s heavily militarized airport compound, and houses Shabelle Radio, Shabelle.net, and a sister radio station and website, SkyFM. Ringed in by concrete barricades and guarded by armed security 24 hours a day, the building resembles a barracks more than a broadcasting studio.
Despite the grim fact that two of his predecessors have been assassinated, Ismaiil has no plans to leave Mogadishu. His willingness to stay, he explains, stems from a profound belief that his work is vital to the recovery of war-torn Somalia.
“I want to do something good for my country,” he says.
It’s a common response among Somali journalist for why they’re willing to risk so much for their profession. That and the slightly less noble “I-want-to-be-famous” explanation. With Somalia’s time-honored reverence for poetry and storytelling, being a journalist – especially a radio broadcaster — promises a level prestige usually reserved for pop stars. This blend of patriotism and glory-seeking might explain why so many young Somalis are eager to throw themselves into such a dangerous and poorly paid job — typically as little as $50 to $100 per month, barely the average wage of a day labourer. That, and a dash of Islamic fatalism.
“Everybody has his day to die,” says Abdirahim Isse Addow, director of the state-owned Radio Mogadishu. “There’s nothing to fear.”
Somalia, which exited a 20-year dictatorship in 1991 only to enter a 20-year civil war, is not a place you would expect to find a thriving journalism scene. After the Somali state printing press was ransacked in 1992, state-run newspapers disappeared overnight and the number of private radio stations in the capital exploded. There are now roughly 30 private stations in Mogadishu — though with new ones continually appearing as others vanish, it’s difficult to keep track. Print media has also made a modest resurgence — despite the cost and uncertain security environment — with seven newspapers with circulations ranging from about 500 to 1,000. Online news outlets number perhaps 200, mostly created and consumed by the over 3-million strong Somali diaspora.
The sheer number of media outlets combined with the limited advertisers in Somalia mean that virtually all of them rely on private benefactors. In the absence of any national regulatory framework governing the media, however, critics say that many stations amount to little more than soapboxes for private individuals seeking to advance their interests. It’s an accusation that has dogged Shabelle, whose principal financial backer, Abdi Malik Yusuf, is a London-based businessman. Some suspect Yusuf of using Shabelle as a platform to advance his political ambitions.
“Shabelle has done some really irresponsible reporting,” says Tom Rhodes, the Nairobi coordinator for the press freedom organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in 2013. “Last year there were some completely unfounded stories about the mayor of Mogadishu: that he was HIV positive, that he was linked to some militia. And there are others.”
The sentiment resonates with my own experience as editor of the news website Somalia Report, where in 2012 I managed a network of over 50 local stringers. Though many were highly professional, others peddled anything from stolen photos to an entirely fabricated interview with the Somali prime minister.
“Professionalism and ethics are very low,” says Mohamed Ibrahim, a New York Times contributor and the head of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). “Most Somali journalists have never been to any sort of journalism school. They have a do-it-yourself mentality.”
Intense competition between media outlets, he argues, often results in a race to the bottom to be the first to report the latest rumours. Sharuur, the practice of asking for bribes in exchange for favorable reporting, is also common.
“Sharuur is the great shame of Somali journalism, and it’s what stopped me from working for local stations,” says Mohamed Odowa, who strings for the German agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA).
Like Odowa, many veteran Somali journalists elect to work for foreign media outlets, where they can earn considerably more than they can at local outlets. This domestic brain drain leaves Somalia’s media scene with a pool of inexperienced reporters whose greatest assets are often bravery and determination. At Shabelle, where many of the employees are under 20 years old and few have had more than cursory training, the newsroom has the feel of a college dorm. Ill-equipped and underpaid, they are sent out to the frontlines of one of the most hostile reporting environments in the world.
“It’s said that you should never shoot the messenger, but in Somalia the messenger is routinely shot, because of the ethos of the radio station he works for,” says Rhodes.
It’s Friday night, the Islamic sabbath, and I am lounging in Shabelle’s common room with a handful of resident journalists, sipping sugary tea and watching them flip between CNN and local Somali channels. One of Shabelle’s most experienced reporters, Haji, bursts in breathlessly.
“Big news,” he announces to the room in English. Then, in Somali: “There’s been a poisoning.” An entire family, including nine children, had ingested tainted camel’s milk. All were in critical condition at Daru Shifa, a nearby hospital.
The following afternoon, I tag along with Hamdi Ali Ahmed, a cherubic reporter in her early 20s, to Daru Shifa. The older of my two bodyguards surrenders his assault rifle at the entrance, while the second stands guard outside. After a hasty pat down we make our way through a bleached corridor and into the office of the hospital administrator. But Hamdi is too late: The administrator informs her that all the poisoning patients have been discharged, so she settles for a three-minute interview. On our way back to Shabelle, Hamdi confides some suspicions to my translator.
“He’s lying,” she says. “He’s keeping the patients in isolation.”
Whether Hamdi’s supposition made its way into her final radio report, I do not know. But the episode is telling. In Somalia’s predominantly oral culture, conspiracy theories abound; rumours, innuendo, and outright slander seamlessly assume the mantle of truth. And this cultural impetus often bleeds into local journalism.
Where the rule of law is virtually non-existent, slander is often met with a deadly response. Shabelle’s reputation as one of the country’s most outspoken and controversial stations probably explains why its employees have been disproportionately targeted. But the identities of the killers — and their motives — are largely a matter of educated guesswork. Al-Shabab tends to be the default bogeyman, but determining the precise culpability of the terror group is confounded by the fact that it often claims responsibility for assassinations that it did not actually carry out.
Revealingly, of the 29 media worker killings internally documented by NUSOJ from 2011 to late 2013, only seven cases show convincing evidence of direct al-Shabab involvement — only three more than the number of murders attributed to Somali government officials. In nine cases, NUSOJ was unable even to speculate on the identities of the culprits. That in many cases assassins have been clad in Somali military uniforms — which can be obtained for about $30 at Mogadishu’s infamous Bakara market–does nothing to resolve the ambiguity.
In some instances, however, the killers’ motives are clearer. Both Shabelle director Hassan Osman “Fantastic” and reporter Ahmed Anshur were known to be investigating financial malfeasance at Mogadishu’s seaport at the time of their murders four months apart during the first half of 2012.
“Officials from the government were threatening them before they were killed,” says Omar Faruk Osman, who claims leadership of the NUSOJ along with Mohamed Ibrahim (the organization split into rival factions in early 2011.) “They were saying, ‘Don’t you know this is Mogadishu? You can die for $50 here.'”
Life may be cheap in Somalia, but the fruits of corrupt governance most certainly are not. In each year from 2009 to 2012, between one-half to four-fifths of port revenues went missing, according to financial auditor Abdirizak Fartaag, whose findings have been cited extensively in a World Bank report. In 2012, that amounted to over $25 million — for some, well worth killing for.
The Somali government has, at least publicly, acknowledged the severity of the problem. In February 2013, former Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction related to any journalist killing. That same month, Shirdon established a “Human Rights Task Force” with the aim of ending impunity.
Yet to date, only one culprit — al-Shabab gunman Aden Sheikh Abdi — has been convicted for the murder of a journalist. In July 2013, Sheikh Abdi was sentenced by a military court and executed by firing squad the following month. But it turned out to be a unique case: The journalist he had killed, Hassan Yusuf Absuge, was a direct relation of the president.
There have been reports that four gunmen are currently awaiting trial for the murder of another journalist, Zakariye Moallim, but Somalia’s then-deputy minister of information, Abdishakur Ali Mire, was unable to confirm that the suspects were in government custody. “I cannot say that we currently have other suspects in prison,” he says, “only that the security agencies have been given instructions to bring to justice those who have murdered Somali journalists.”
Yet in July 2013, the Somali cabinet introduced a highly controversial media law, which both domestic and international critics say is more about repressing and regulating the media than safeguarding journalists. Under the proposed law, the Ministry of Information controls the majority of seats on a National Media Council empowered to license media outlets and mandate minimum qualifications for journalists, as well as prohibit “false news” resulting in harm “to the country, the people or the religion.”
To its credit, the current administration has been receptive to criticism of the new law, and the Somali parliament temporarily shelved its passage pending the recommendations of an Independent Media Law Task Force formed in April. Given that the government struggles to control even the capital itself, however, it is unclear how much difference a media law will make for those facing an assassin’s gun.
Mire insists that the administration is doing what it can to improve security conditions on the ground, but balks at the idea of providing journalists with special protection: “The government’s responsibility is to protect all members of society, and journalists are part of society,” he says. “My friend, do you advise me to provide every citizen with a bodyguard?”
On 26 October 2013, the National Intelligence and Security Agency stormed Shabelle’s headquarters, battering down the gate and arresting 19 journalists and media workers within. State officials justified the eviction on the grounds that Shabelle had been illegally occupying a government building that once housed the long-defunct Somali national airline. Shabelle journalists — who claim they were beaten up and robbed by government soldiers – cited a contract allowing them to operate in the building until 2015, and say the raid was in reality about silencing the station. Shabelle was forced off the air for two months before it reestablished itself at a new location in central Mogadishu. As of this printing, four Shabelle and SkyFM journalists are still being detained in Mogadishu on charges of high treason and inciting violence, according to Human Rights Watch. Shabelle’s director, Abdi Ismaiil, has since gone into exile in Europe, where he is claiming asylum.
Beset by their own government on one side and Islamist militants on the other, the space in which Somali journalists can operate continues to shrink. The more experienced reporters, deluged with death threats, flee by the dozens to safety abroad only to be replaced by a fresh cadre of green recruits. “They’re exploited for their youth and bravery,” says Rhodes. As recently as 21 June, radio correspondent Yusuf Ahmed Abukar died instantly when a bomb attached to his car was remotely detonated in Mogadishu. The culprits remain at large.
There is no clear solution. The problems faced by journalists are the same intractable woes plaguing the Somali people as a whole, only more reified. Until Somalia regains a functioning government willing and able to protect its citizens, journalism training and new laws can only put patches on a fissure. Caught in an asymmetric war between government forces and insurgents — where propaganda and control of the media are as important as the outcome of a battle – Somali journalists are now seen as legitimate targets on both sides.
*Some names have been change to protect those involved.
Jay Bahadur is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist and author of The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.