Nairobi, Kenya – The assailants grabbed the Somali sports writer, bound his hands behind his back, and proceeded to torture him. They later dumped his body outside a Mogadishu restaurant, placing the severed head on his chest.
Another reporter was gunned down a day later as he walked to work, bringing to 15 the number of journalists killed in Somalia this year in an unprecedented spate of violence targeting the press.
Many media members have fled the country after the attacks, which have occurred amid signs the conflict is abating. Somalia is the most dangerous place in Africa to work for the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But in neighbouring Kenya, young Somali refugees are training to become journalists and plan to return to the country, despite the increasing dangers.
“Everyone will die one day,” Abdiladiif Ali declares in a small room he shares with two other Somalis in his new home in Nairobi. “Whether I am in Somalia or in a safer place, still death will meet me.”
Ali says he intends to become “a very famous journalist, a household name”.
“There is so much violence against journalists in Somalia, but that will never stop me from pursuing my career,” he vows.
One mattress is pushed against the wall to create floor space for daily prayers. A small TV sits in the corner, an extra cost the roommates share to watch the news.
Ali, 22, is as old as Somalia’s conflict. He fled his hometown of Mogadishu in 2007 and arrived in Nairobi last year, after spending four years in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. He now attends Al-Imra Institute of Language and Journalism in Eastleigh, a Somali neighbourhood in the capital’s eastern suburbs.
At Al-Imra, Ali’s class is full of students aspiring to become journalists, despite the perils of the profession. Six Somali journalists were killed in September alone. With three months remaining, 2012 already stands as the deadliest year for the Somali press.
Journalists in exile
On a Tuesday evening in Eastleigh, journalists gathered in a reception hall normally used to celebrate weddings. Under purple and white tulle and strings of flickering lights, they honoured their colleagues lost last month.
Outside the door, a guard ran his security wand up and down entering guests. Even in exile, Somali journalists receive regular threats.
Ali served as the master of ceremonies, inviting reporters from Somali radio stations, websites and satellite television channels to share their condolences. Because of the persecution journalists face at home, Somali media have flourished in the Kenyan capital.
“How could you dare go back to a town where the journalist is a target?” asks Mohamed Osman, the founder of Al-Imra Institute of Language and Journalism, and chairman of the Somali Exiled Journalists Association. “No one knows why we are killed and who is killing the journalists.”
In 2007, while Osman was working in Mogadishu at HornAfrik Radio – Somalia’s first independent broadcaster – his producer, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, was shot dead outside of their studio. Later that day, an improvised explosive device killed Ali Sharmarke, director of HornAfrik, as he drove home from Elmi’s funeral. Osman fled Somalia following the attacks.
Although al-Shabab was suspected to be behind Elmi and Sharmarke’s murders, no investigation followed.
Failure to investigate crimes against journalists cannot be explained by lack of capacity. Somali government forces are often implicated in censoring and targeting journalists.
“They [businessmen and politicians] have their own vested interests for starting the stations that rarely have anything to do with professionalism or objectivity.”
– Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s East Africa consultant
“It would be naive to say that the enemy is al-Shabab and that the government supports them,” explains Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s East Africa consultant. “In many ways the Somali journalists are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
CPJ suspects one of the killings this year was ordered by an official in the former Transitional Federal Government.
Journalists also face internal pressures. Businessmen and politicians own most Somali media outlets.
“They have their own vested interests for starting the stations that rarely have anything to do with professionalism or objectivity,” explains Rhodes. “They buy radio stations and use them as their own personal mouthpiece – this puts journalists at risk.”
Dying to work
In 2010, Mohamed Osman founded Al-Imra Institute of Language and Journalism in Nairobi. Young Somali refugees pack the single classroom. Nearly half of the 30 students are female.
Ali sits toward the back, but takes notes carefully. His brother, working in the United States, sends him money to cover the monthly tuition fee of 1,000 shillings (US$12).
The school has no equipment of its own. Osman relies on local journalists, who occasionally lend their cameras and audio recorders for the students to learn how to use.
The education Al-Imra offers is highly sought after, despite its meagre resources. Students have recently arrived from Somalia, where few training opportunities for journalists exist.
“You need to be a responsible journalist,” Osman tells his students. “Try and reduce the conflict through the profession.”
His lectures cover media law and ethics, emphasising the importance of objectivity in reporting conflict. Osman also focuses on the danger of defamation.
“If they are fair and accurate, we tell them they are safer,” Osman says.
Most of his students want to return to Somalia.
“I will work wherever I find a job,” says 27-year-old student Fatuma Lsse. “If I find work in Somalia, the better for me, it is my country. You need to be bold, somebody has to work there.”
Hundreds of veteran journalists, such as Osman, remain in exile leaving Somalia with a young, inexperienced press corps.
Most of the journalists killed this year have been in their 20s or early 30s.
“They are trying to make a name for themselves, so they are willing to take risks that older journalists would not take,” Rhodes says. “They are too young to be dying like this.”