Civil Liberties, Political Liberties & Access to Mass Media

Political philosophers, from John Stuart Mill (1989) to Amartya Sen (1999), have argued that the existence of a free press is essential to a democratic system, as a means of preventing conflict and protecting civil liberties. Mill (1989:19-25), for example, argued that a public press that creates an arena for free debate ensures a transparent political system. The key problem is that the print and electronic media has only limited coverage in Somaliland, with the newspapers having a small circulation. Four media companies publish four dailies in Somali, three weeklies in English, and three weeklies in Arabic. The biggest Somaliland paper is Jamhuriya, which only has a daily circulation of 2,000-2,500 copies, as well as 1,000 in London. The smallest, the government-owned Mandeq has a circulation of approximately 500 (Dualeh, 2005:155-156). Likewise, radio (with the exception of the BBC) and television broadcasts having a restricted coverage. This limited media presence made it difficult to promote a Somaliland-wide political discourse during the elections.

Somaliland toyed with the idea of adopting a press law based on the Ethiopian one but rejected the idea, and the Somaliland press is consequently freer than in Ethiopia. However, reporters who criticize the government are regularly jailed. In 2004, the Somali Journalist Network reported four different cases of journalists being arrested on duty. Nonetheless, the media get away with severe criticism of the government, and papers such as Haatuf and Jamhuriya regularly publish highly critical articles, as well as cartoon caricatures of prominent politicians. Seemingly the relationship between the Somaliland government and its press was developing for the better and was of an entirely different nature than the equivalent relationship in neighboring countries as Ethiopia, but the trend changed.


On 2 January 2007, Yusuf Gabobe Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, Somaliland Times editor (Somaliland Times being the English version of Haatuf) and also the chairman of Haatuf Media Network and Ali Abdi Dini the editor of Haatuf daily newspaper were arrested together with Mohamed Omar, because of a critical article accusing the president’s wife of corruption. It is open to debate whether the articles that the charge was based on were defamatory according to Somaliland law.

However, The Somaliland courts choose to follow the chaotic precedence from Ethiopia, invoking the harsh Somali Penal law of 1963 instead of Somaliland’s press law, although the latter law explicitly states that it should have precedence.16 The fact that one-third of the printed press in Somaliland (the Haatuf media network’s newspapers) was severely hit (if not destroyed; the license of the Haatuf media network was withdrawn by the time of writing) by the court actions show how vulnerable the Somaliland press is. Although the charged journalists were pardoned by the president because of foreign pressure, the above described juridical precedence has not been revoked

All the Somali papers covered the political debates during all of the elections, while also discussing clan issues. Themes, such as corruption within the government, government gerrymandering, the contested eastern regions, the level of tax in Berbera port and its impact on trade were all covered by the press. The small number of newspapers and their financial fragility means that the print media is vulnerable to political manipulation and the suppression of free debate.

Additionally, The Somaliland newspapers are largely an urban phenomenon that has limited impact in a country that has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world (World Bank/ UNDP, 2003). This is a serious obstacle to strengthening democracy in Somaliland. Political issues are not brought out to the countryside, opening debates on, for example, the influence of clan considerations on voting preferences, as well as of outright buying of votes.

Radio, or TV, could offset the effect of illiteracy, as well as the limited circulation of the printed press. However, the range on the Somaliland radio and TV stations is limited. Moreover, the largest broadcasting institutions, Somaliland National TV and Radio Hargeisa are owned by the government, and their coverage is limited to areas around Hargeisa and Sahil region.17

The range of information available to the public, including exposure to political debates, is therefore limited.18 In addition to this, the broadcast media is biased towards the government. Somaliland National TV coverage of the 2005 elections was clearly skewed to the government and Radio Hargeisa allocated more time to the government candidates.19 Ironically, the only media that is able to reach the rural nomadic population is the BBC Somali Service. However, the BBC is restricted from covering political debates in Somaliland in-depth, because it has to treat Somaliland on equal footing with the other parts in Somalia.

This lack of media scrutiny is exacerbated by a weak civil society. A strong civil society is often claimed to be an important element in a functioning democracy. According to Francis Fukuyama (2004:30), it has the possibility to enhance accountability. However, the civil society in Somaliland is elite-driven, often dependent on external donors. The relatively small size of the Somaliland elite ensures that connections between local NGOs, parties, and clans are strong, and civil society organizations are seldom seen as neutral. Moreover, although being reasonably efficient in educating voters during the elections, they generally fail to engage the Somaliland rural population outside election times.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.