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Somalia’s authorities should not perpetuate threats on journalists

Most Somali journalists who were detained this year by government forces were reporting on bombings and corruption

EDITORIAL | Reports of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) targeting journalists deemed critical of authorities to raise serious concerns about Somalia’s commitment to protecting free speech.

That these reports emerged hot on allegations that NISA was working with Al-Shabaab is even more worrying. NISA has already dismissed reports it has had a hand in Shabaab attacks on Kenyan troops.

But we would like to point out that such a series of bad publicity only soils the very intentions of an agency formed to protect Somalia and Somalis from existential threats.

More on al-Shabaab later. Our immediate worry is the continual threatening of independent journalists risking it all to tell the Somalia story. This week, Mukhtar Mohamed Atosh, a reporter for Voice of America -Somali Service (VOA), was released, after he spent time in detention for allegedly publishing damaging information.

He is not the only one. In mid-April, Journalist Abdiaziz Ahmed Gurbiye of Goobjoog radio was arrested and detained for posting a critical comment on Facebook. He wrote on Somalia’s Covid-19 priorities.

Authorities, based on their own logic felt that bordered on national security or some other threat. Gurbiye was later released, but only after public noise attracted the attention of foreign civil rights lobbyists.

Somalia shouldn’t be this way. Yet Gurbiye’s case wasn’t the only one. Earlier, NISA had fingered Voice of America’s Harun Maruf for having unexplained “links” that were a “threat to national security.”

The agency did not elaborate on what those threats were, but attacking a journalist, one of the few Africans to file in-depth reports on al-Shabaab appeared like scolding a messenger.

Maruf has also co-written a book on ‘inside al-Shabaab’, a masterpiece that Somalia’s intelligence community should be poring over, using it as a Launchpad to finding solutions against a group that threatens the very existence of not just Somalia, but the region as a whole. Even the US government, an ally of Somalia’s Federal Government was not amused with the labeling of Maruf.

That security agencies harass journalists is in itself self-contradictory. First, these are agencies created to help a nascent government protect its citizens, scarred by years of violence.

They are legal organs meant to make everyone feel safe. Second, NISA is led by Fahad Yassin, a person who spent years working as a journalist. It shouldn’t be too much for him to be protective of his kind.

Granted, Somalia hasn’t been a safe place for journalists. Ranked 163 out of 180 countries, the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says at least a journalist has been killed in Somalia every year since 2006.

RSF said in its 2020 report that Somalia continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in Africa for media personnel, “with three more journalists killed in 2019, bringing the total killed in the past ten years to 50.

It results from corruption and political pressures, sandwiching journalists, and subjecting them to threats from the federal government, federal states, non-state actors like Al-Shabaab, and other interest groups.

The violence from al-Shabaab is often brutal, yet we can’t get a chance to get back at them through legal channels, such as filing complaints. The government shouldn’t mimic this modus operandi, because the effects could boomerang on its face.

We do not condone any illegal operations, however, and we believe Somalia already runs on laws that courts can easily interpret. However, when authorities impose extra-constitutional hurdles for journalists, we must raise alarm.

A case in point is the current coverage of Covid-19 cases. The government in Mogadishu, as well as some regional governments, have been insisting against “negative” news coverage of Somalia’s COVID-19 fight.

When TV reporter Abdullahi Farah Nur interviewed civilians on the coronavirus crisis in March, RSF says security forces detained him, accusing him of spreading falsehoods. At the time, there were just about three cases or so in the country. Now there are more than 500.

When the dust on COVID-19 settles, as we hope it will, questions will emerge as to whether authorities spent time focusing on image rather than the challenge at hand. What exactly do they mean when they say only official statements should be reported? Journalists on the ground have already complained of difficulties in accessing the information on Covid-19, such as the number of people being tested resulting in new cases each day. On the ground, some officials have admitted being gagged from speaking, according to various press lobbies in Somalia.

The only conclusion from that is that Somali media cannot report correctly on COVID-19 and hence cannot give vital information to the public. If the government wanted an ally, journalists could help it, especially in public awareness. Stifling them is ill-advised.

Our hope is that journalists will face an easier time interacting with Somali authorities. Every day, journalists in Somalia head into the field knowing a grenade or a suicide bomber could explode at any time. They now don’t need to look over their shoulders because of Somali authorities.


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