Mogadishu, Somalia – The mood of journalists at the Dalsan radio station in Somalia’s capital is sombre. Earlier in the day, a senior journalist at the station, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, was sentenced to a year in prison after interviewing a woman who alleged that government soldiers raped her.
Ibrahim was charged with insulting state institutions, and court documents claimed he induced the woman to give false evidence. Before his sentencing, Ibrahim had been in jail for 25 days.
“Now everyone is scared. You can be jailed for interviewing people. We have never experienced this before. I’m considering leaving my job,” said a shaken Mohamud “Arab” Mohamed Dahir, a popular presenter at the station and a close friend of Ibrahim.
Somali journalist jailed for interview on rape
Somalia is one of the toughest places for journalists to operate. More than 50 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992. Since the start of this year, one journalist has already been killed in Mogadishu. So far, no one has been arrested in connection with the death.
Ibrahim is the third journalist jailed by Somali authorities in the past three months. Daud Abdi Daud, a local freelance journalist, was arrested on Tuesday February 5, and is currently in jail. No official statement has yet been released explaining why Daud was arrested.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based non-profit organisation that advocates for press freedom and freedom of information, ranked Somalia 175 out of 179 countries in their 2013 World Press Freedom Index, lower than Iran and China, and just three places above North Korea.
Now, for the first time in more than 20 years, Somalia has an elected president in office and an internationally recognised government in Mogadishu. The country has also passed a draft constitution, and courts are functioning for the first time in many years.
But that hasn’t stopped unknown gunmen from assassinating journalists.
“Since this government came into office in September last year, nine journalists have been killed. In September, the government’s first month in office, six journalists were killed,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ).
Militia and hardline groups that want to impose strict interpretations of Sharia still control significant parts of the country, and four of the 18 journalists and media workers killed last year lost their lives in areas beyond the control of Somalia’s central government.
After the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1990, journalists in the country were essentially unregulated. This is something the new government is very much aware of. “For a very long time, Somali journalists had the freedom to write and say what they wanted, whether fiction or facts,” explained Abdishakur Ali Mire, Somalia’s deputy minister for Information, Posts, Telecommunications and Tourism.
“Some even engaged in hate speech and spreading dangerous rumours with no consequence. They abused their freedom. Now there are courts and a constitution and consequences for those who abuse their constitutional rights. Those journalists who write fictional stories will be taken to court.”
Both the government and journalists are today in unchartered territory. The government has been in office only since September 2012, and Somali journalists are now, for the first time in more than two decades, regulated.
‘As far away as possible’
“No one can stop journalists from working freely. It is their constitutional rights and we will do everything to protect that.”
– Abdishakur Ali Mire
“This government is different to other governments we have had in Somalia,” said Awil Abukar, head of programmes at Royal TV, a local television station. “When they were campaigning for office they were very friendly with journalists, but now they are in office it seems they want us as far away as possible.”
But the government says it is committed to maintaining media freedom, and has established the country’s first-ever task force created solely to investigate violations against journalists.
“No one can stop journalists from working freely. It is their constitutional right and we will do everything to protect that,” said Ali Mire.
Of the 32 journalists who used to report to work daily at Dalsan radio station, only about half came in the morning after Ibrahim was sentenced. “They are demoralised and scared. Abdiaziz was not just a colleague – he was one of the most liked at the station. Most of our journalists have families that depend on them, so they see the risks are too great now,” explained Hassan Ali Geesay, the station’s director.
NUSOJ described the new government as using everything in its power to protect its well-groomed image with the international and donor community. “This is an intimidation to stop journalists from doing their work,” charged Ibrahim. “To stop journalists from doing investigative work and covering sensitive stories that could harm the government’s image”.
Sitting in a semi-lit corner of an empty studio, Mohamed Dahir is already thinking of ways to avoid being arrested by authorities. “I will just have to avoid reporting rape cases and corruption cases. To my family, I’m better off outside prison than inside prison.”
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