Journalists in Somalia routinely face many difficulties but this year, under the stress of the spread of COVID-19, they say feel even more threatened by intimidation and arrest by what they call hostile leaders.
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Cautiously celebrating World Press Freedom Day, a number of Somali journalists and journalists’ rights activists shared their experiences with the VOA Somali service.
“Somalia has always been a hostile environment for journalists but this year the situation was extreme as authorities stepped up their intimidation of journalists and especially this time when our country faces the spread of the novel coronavirus,” said Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimu, secretary-general of the Federation of Somali Journalists.
Moalimu says three journalists were arbitrarily detained in different parts of Somalia. Two of them were accused of various crimes, and a local radio station was barred from broadcasting in a local dialect since mid-April 2020.
“Facing jail and threats in a time of the pandemic, when journalists are struggling with changing roles and behaviors to maintain their service to the public interest is not acceptable,” said Moalimu.
Journalists in Somalia say they go to extreme lengths to report on sensitive and controversial issues in the public interest.
Luqman Mohamed Farah is a journalist who works with Bulsho TV, a private outlet based in Hargeisa Somaliland.
“Authorities are not friendly with the media and they do not provide the information journalists need and that forces some journalists to report stories from non-government sources and because of that they face arrests and intimidations,” said Farah.
Burhan Diini Farah, the director of Kulmiye radio, a private VOA affiliate radio station based in Mogadishu says getting information from the authorities has been a challenge.
“Nowadays, the government’s top leaders do not hold press conferences, where they can take questions. They pre-record videos and audio messages and distribute them via government media. So, it is a kind of indirectly normalizing government censorship,” Farah said.
Somali government authorities often deny such accusations and instead accuse journalists of impartiality and providing misinformation.
“I categorically deny that government security agencies arrest journalists for reasons relating to stifling them and silencing them and I can tell you that there are ongoing efforts to train and develop journalists to give the journalists an environment where journalists can work freely without fear,” said Somalia’s director of the Ministry of Information, Abduraham Yusuf (Al-dala).
Somali President Mohamed Abdullah Farmajo tweeted “Congrats to Somali journalists on World Press Freedom Day. Journalism is a noble profession & Penal Code of 1964 will be reformed to ensure it is not used against journos. My administration fully supports the decriminalization of journalism & free expression through legal reform.”
The penal code, which came into force in 1964, includes a number of vague and overly broad crimes, including criminal defamation, offending the honor and prestige of the head of state, insulting a public officer or institution, and contempt against the nation, state or flag.
Somalia is categorized as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, as they face threats from authorities, armed private individuals, and the al-Shabaab terrorist group. In its latest World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Somalia 163 out of 180 nations.
“Pressure on journalists can come from many quarters, especially as much of the country is controlled by non-state entities or by autonomous regional governments that either do not or only barely recognize the central government’s authority,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Some journalists leave the country and prefer to live in exile.
Abdulkadir Omar Abdulle is one of them. In July 2012 two suspected al-Shabaab gunmen shot him in the leg and the chest He was working as Universal Somali TV anchor at the time but went on to work and live in Nairobi Kenya.
“That was a painful and shocking experience and still it rings in my ears and hurts my heart,” Abdulle told VOA Somali. “They fired about seven bullets at me, two of them hit me in the stomach and one in the leg, thanks to Allah I survived, but still I live with the trauma.”
After a few years, Abdulle went back to Mogadishu to continue his profession but again received threatening phone calls about the way he talked about the attack. This led him to return to Nairobi.
Khadar Akulle, Khadar Hared and Hassan Kafi have contributed this report.