“Journalists should not be sent to prison for doing their job,” tweeted Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon in response to a recent court ruling in the case of a journalist who interviewed a rape victim. And yet on March 3, a Mogadishu court of appeals upheld the conviction of the journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, without explaining what crime he was supposed to have committed.
Finally, the Supreme Court rightly ordered his release on March 18 after 66 days in detention, the first step in rectifying a case that was wrong from the start. He had been detained after interviewing a woman who said she had been gang-raped by Somali security forces - and who herself was arrested for reporting the crime, sentenced to a year in prison, but eventually acquitted on appeal. “It will take time,” Shirdon continued on Twitter, for Somalia’s judiciary “to become an institution that delivers justice effectively and inspires public confidence.”
It is hard to disagree with that assessment, as this case has so frighteningly demonstrated. Many Somali women suffer the brutalising effects of widespread sexual violence. But the security forces, with backing from some in the judiciary, have signalled that these women should not dare report their plight, and that journalists who interview them should fear prison for their effort. In such an environment, it is a pipedream to hope for independent investigations of human rights abuses committed by officials.
For more than 15 years, researchers from Human Rights Watch have uncovered and documented horrendous abuses in Somalia. The work is arduous and painstaking. Security concerns make investigating and corroborating allegations of rape, extrajudicial executions and other abuses especially difficult. Yet we have managed to interview thousands of Somalis who tell their stories, even in wartime, and to push for action to end abuses.
So do human rights investigators now risk arrest for simply asking questions? More important, do we put our sources at greater risk just by interviewing them? We are accustomed to asking ourselves such questions, especially in repressive countries or those at war, and we know that journalists are often targeted for their work. But this case has stood out for its brazen, unabashed retaliation.
Rights group criticises Somalia over rapes
After the woman was arrested, police went through her mobile phone, calling her contacts until they tracked down Abdiaziz Abdinur. He was first accused of seeking to smear the authorities with her rape allegations, and then in his second court hearing, of violating his professional ethics by not publishing her story as if that were evidence of an extortion attempt.
The Supreme Court decision, releasing Abdiaziz, is a step in the right direction, but the impact of this case goes well beyond these two individuals. The new Somali government needs to do more to ensure that Somali human rights defenders, journalists and victims of human rights violations can protect themselves from arbitrary criminal charges if they tread on the interests of the powerful.
Sexual violence has been significant during the Somali conflict, with women who are internally displaced (like the victim in this case) at greater risk of abuse. Women are often reluctant to report rape to the authorities for fear of reprisal, and this episode has only exacerbated that concern. “This case is forcing women in Somalia to ask, who can we trust now?” said Fartuun Abdisalaan Adan, a founder of Sister Somalia, a rape crisis shelter in Mogadishu.
Somalia is already one of the most dangerous in the world for reporters, and the current climate of censorship exacerbates the risks facing journalists who try to uncover official wrongdoing. No government or court should decide what stories journalists may or may not report, especially when the story is about official abuse.
Donors to Somalia, including the US, the UK, the EU and Japan, should work to ensure Somali journalists can do their jobs without fear of government reprisals. Those funding the police like the EU, Japan and the UN Development Programme should ensure they are not contributing to a force that tries to silence victims of human rights abuses.
Somalia is supposed to have turned a corner. It has a new government staffed in part by activists and supporters of human rights, who say they are committed to promoting the rule of law and have a “zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence”. It is time to live up to those pledges. Hopefully, the action of the Supreme Court is a sign that this government is serious about prosecuting sexual violence, upholding freedom of expression and ensuring space for independent human rights investigations.
Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Follow him on Twitter: @KenRoth
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.