“I know they will catch me. I know they will torture me. But silence is not an option.” Those were Mohamed Bashir’s words – the senior most editor at Radio Shabelle, an independent radio station based in the capital Mogadishu – as I met him early last month while he was on the run hiding from the Somali government.
Few days later he was picked up by heavily armed plain-clothed masked men. For more than a week no one knew where he was or who his abductors were.
From his cell, he called me – possibly using a smuggled phone – to say he had been tortured, refused medical attention and not been taken to a court. Though shaken, he is angry and that has made Bashir go on a hunger strike for the past two weeks. Incidentally, he was arrested just weeks after getting married.
His crime and that of his colleagues who are also behind bars appears to be reporting the government’s offensive against al-Shabab and its disarmament operations.
On August 15 security forces raided two radio stations – Shabelle FM and SKY FM – and took them off the air. Nineteen employees of the two stations were detained, 15 of whom were later released. Four including Bashir still remain in prison with no charges and a visit to court not pencilled.
Away from the public glare, the UN-backed Somali government has for the last two months undertaken a slow yet ruthless campaign to silence all those who don’t toe the accepted norm – don’t mention al-Shabab in your news bulletin. If you do, you can expect a visit from the security forces followed by a trip to Godka Jilicow, Mogadishu’s dreaded prison where according to both inmates and rights groups, torture is routine.
Bashir dared to violate the unwritten diktat and now finds himself locked away without trial.
Late August, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) convened a meeting of media owners and editors to demand a blanket blackout on all news relating to al-Shabab and operation Indian Ocean (latest military operation to retake towns from al-Shabab) unless approved by the agency.
The government is worried about the conduct of its soldiers – poorly trained and sometimes not paid months on end – who have a habit of helping themselves to anything they find in retaken towns. Reporting their bad conduct does give the government a bad name.
Residents of Fidow, a town retaken from al-Shabab, told Al Jazeera how they returned to the town the day after government forces retook it only to find their homes looted.
But when some journalists refused to toe the NISA line, raids followed on radio stations.
Radio Kulmiye and Radio Simba were raided and taken off air briefly. Two journalists from Dalsan Radio were also put behind bars but later released without charges.
As the world’s attention is focused on the government’s campaign against al-Shabab and the newly captured towns, what has been largely ignored is the Somali government’s war on the local media.
Mostly shackled, the once vibrant Somali media is starting to look and sound like state media.
Most are treading cautiously these days, lest they cross the line laid down by NISA.
Private media houses who until recently were the first to report from the frontlines were nowhere to be seen as government forces took over towns in the lower and middle Shabelle provinces. They stayed away from reporting, fearing they could earn the government’s displeasure with their coverage.
Several editors told me they have completely stopped reporting on al-shabab and the government’s offensive against the hardline al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group.
Under fire, many journalists have preferred to shut up.
As one senior journalist with Shabelle told me: “You risk al-Shabab bullets and IEDs when you go to the frontline. Then you can be arrested for reporting what you see and hear. It is better to pretend to be deaf and blind.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa