Africa’s deadliest country for journalists, which has been without a stable government since 1991, has had a bleak year. Journalists in Somalia, a country which despite everything has a diverse and robust press, have been targeted by hired killers as well as facing the intolerance of the transitional government.
The litany of murdered journalists punctuated a desolate year for the Somali press. Ali Mohammed Omar, a young presenter on privately-owned Radio Warsan, one of the most listened to in the central-western Baidoa region, died after being shot in the head as he returned home on the evening of 16 February 2007. Mohammed Abdullahi Khalif, of Radio Voice of Peace, in Galkayo, Puntland, was reporting on arms trafficking in the town on 5 May when he was gunned down by soldiers who had come to recover a weapon which had been stolen from them. Abshir Ali Gabre and Ahmed Hassan Mahad, de Radio Jowhar, were killed in an ambush on 15 May against a convoy in which they were travelling of the governor of Moyen-Shabelle, central-south Somalia. They were seized by the assailants, stabbed several times before being finished off with bursts from an assault rifle. Head of the Mogadishu radio station Capital Voice, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, was on his way to work on 11 August when he was gunned down with several bullets to the head. Co-founder of HornAfrik radio, Ali Iman Sharmarke, was killed in a roadside bomb explosion as he returned form the funeral of a colleague also on 11 August. A journalist on Radio Banadir, Abdulkadir Mahad Moallim Kaskey, was killed on 24 August when the minibus in which he was travelling in the countryside in the south-west was raked with gunfire. Finally, the head of another popular Mogadishu radio, Bashir Nur Gedi, of Radio Shabelle, was murdered by a commando outside his home in front of his wife and children on 19 October.
In the majority of cases, suspicion fells on Islamist insurgents fighting Ethiopian-backed government forces. Leaders of the Islamic Courts, exiled in Eritrea where they receive government aid and an international platform, mount attacks in Mogadishu against government and Ethiopian interests. Their “military wing”, a group of radical militiamen known as the “Shabaab” (Youth), gives instructions to young irregular hired killers to shoot down “traitors”, trade unionists, academics, soldiers and journalists.
A gruesome toll
The heavy toll for the Somali press reads as follows : Eight dead, four injured, some 50 journalists in exile, and others holed up at home after abandoning their work in fear. To this terrible toll, must be added 53 journalists arrested while doing their job, either in southern Somalia, where the capital Mogadishu is sited, in semi-autonomous Puntland in the north or in the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland in the north-west.
Because not only are Somali journalists victims of political violence into which their country has sunk with the years, but they are also favourite targets for the transitional authorities, who see them as inconvenient witnesses of the chaos which they are unable to control. The culprits are mostly the Somali security forces, who act at will, shrugging off the thin line of law that the federal transitional government is supposed to get respected. Unfair imprisonment is also commonplace. Perhaps the most pertinent illustration is the case of Abdulkadir Mohammed Ashir “Nadara” and Bashir Dirie Nalei, journalists on privately-owned Universal TV, and cameraman Hamud Mohamed Osman, arrested on 21 March after a press conference given by President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed because the head of state’s entourage considered they had asked an impertinent question. They were only released, on 22 May, thanks to intense international pressure.
In addition to targeted assassinations and arbitrary arrest, one incident was particularly telling. A unit of the Somali security forces attempted to enter the premises of Radio Shabelle on the morning of 18 September, after a grenade had been thrown at a patrol in the area. Soldiers raked the building with gunfire, particularly the floor housing the radio studios, breaking all the windows. They then besieged the building for several hours before authorising the evacuation of the staff. The Radio Shabelle studios are located in the centre of Mogadishu, not far from Bakara market which has become the insurgents’ stronghold. The area is particularly prone to clashes and attacks. The owner of the building is also a member of the Ayr clan which is notoriously hostile to the transitional government.
Irritable local authorities
Journalists’ freedoms were also targeted by the authorities in the semi-autonomous Puntland region, former stronghold of the president of the transitional government, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. The region’s sea coast is used for trade in arms and refugees to the Gulf states. Small criminal gangs, formed on a clan basis and backed by their own militia, share this very lucrative business between them. As a result, the north of Puntland has become the hunting ground of bands of kidnappers, who have turned abduction and piracy into a business. Two aid workers were kidnapped in May before being released after negotiations with their captors and traditional chiefs. French freelance cameraman Gwenlaouen Le Gouil was kidnapped on 16 December while reporting for the French-German channel Arte. He was released on Christmas Eve. The demands of the kidnappers, a gang which organises the smuggling of people into Saudi Arabia via Yemen, were purely criminal.
Elsewhere, relying on police pressure, local authorities attempted to protect the apparent stability of the region, spared Islamist agitation but shaken by territorial rivalries with Somaliland. Against this background, unwanted witnesses have been ruthlessly treated. Independent journalists Mohamed Gahnug and Faysal Jaama were detained for several days at the end of September in the disputed town of Las Anod, after taking photos of the Puntland security forces during clashes with the Somaliland army. Abdifatah Dahir Jeyte, producer and presenter on privately-owned Radio Voice of Peace in Bossaso, was placed under arrest on 16 July by around 30 agents of Puntland intelligence services, who raided his office. He was freed two days later only because of a determined international campaign and the fact that around 20 colleagues and the deputy interior minister, demonstrated in front of the headquarters of the intelligence services to protest at his imprisonment.
Also anxious to preserve its reputation as “haven of peace” on the edge of Somali anarchy, Somaliland is at loggerheads with the private press, particularly the newspaper Haatuf. Its publication director, Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, its editor, Ali Abdi Dini, and Mohamed Omar Sheikh Ibrahim, correspondent in the north-western region of Awdal served three months in prison between January and March. The government took proceedings against them for a series of articles exposing favouritism in government appointments and the use of official vehicles for private purposes. They were originally sentenced to two years in prison and were released after extensive campaigns by colleagues and international organisations.