Farmajo's assurance to Somalia journalists amid crackdown on press freedom
MOGADISHU - Somalia government is keen to decriminalize journalism, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo said in a rare statement in solidarity with reporters, Sunday, even as dozens of journalists waged peaceful protests in streets of Mogadishu.
Acting on recent arbitrary arrests, detentions, and assassinations of their colleagues, angry journalists penned protest letters to Villa Somalia, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Kheire, and the country's attorney, which were dispatched to relevant authorities through their lawyer.
In their statement, the media practitioners, who celebrated the annual world press freedom, cited incidents of murders, detentions, and intimidations, arguing that this "worrying trend that indicates how the Somali authorities have scaled up the crackdown on the independent media".
Among others, they argued, two media houses were banned by authorities, one Abdiwali Hassan Ali alias Online was executed, 19 journalists were arrested by authorities, four harassed besides being denied absolute access to information.
But in a rare tweet, Farmajo, whose administration has been on spot for blatant violation of media freedoms, hinted plans to review the retrogressive penal code of 1964 adding that his administration was keen to grant press freedoms.
"Congrats to Somali journalists on World Press Freedom Day. Journalism is a noble profession and the Penal Code of 1964 will be reformed to ensure it is not used against journos. My administration fully supports the decriminalization of journalism and free expression through legal reform," he said.
For the past one month, Farmajo's administration has struggled to justify arrests and detentions of top media operatives besides open harassment and defiance targeting Voice of America reporter Harun Maruf.
Spy agency NISA, which has been at loggerheads with Maruf, who's based in Washington DC, accused him of being a "danger" to national security. Already, the controversial agency under Fahad Yasin has "completed" investigations linking the accomplished reporter to Al-Shabaab militants and subsequently, recommending for his prosecution.
Mukhtaar Mohamed Atoosh, another VOA correspondent was arrested last month for reporting a rape case while Abdiaziz Ahmed Gurbiye of GoobJoog Media was also detained. For Mohamed Abdiwahab Nur, it's been two months of imprisonment without trial, and authorities have also linked him to Al-Shabaab.
Although Farmajo comes out as an "honest" man with good intentions to media operatives, he, however, failed to explain why his administration has been persecuting the media without due process of the law. His message was reinforced his message, an indication that the administration has since succumbed to pressure.
Ben Fender, the British ambassador to Somalia, welcomed the unprecedented message from the president, saying that "Delighted to see today’s commitment by Farmaajo to reform the Penal Code to protect reporters".
"Still too many attacks on the media, in all parts of Somalia. A free press is vital to check abuse of power, fight corruption and expose Al Shabaab’s lies," added the envoy, who has been in frontline fighting for rights and freedoms of expression in Somalia.
But for a section of media practitioners, Farmajo's message was not only "hypocritical" but also "fallacious". A number of dissenting voices wondered why he decided to stand in solidarity with the media yet he'd failed to address their concerns.
"It's a strange paradox that Farmaajo has today congratulated Somali journos on the occasion of the World's Press Freedom Day, while journalists themselves convened to voice their concerns regarding the government's ill-treatment against them," said Mohamed Dhaaley, a researcher.
"The penal code was not the reason why leaders of opposition parties were attacked nor the reason for the shrinking political space. Time to address the real issues rather than congratulate government’s phony diversions," a top journalist in Mogadishu Aden Abdulle, said
Human Rights Watch had on Saturday questioned the decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo's administration to refuse to give the status of the cases involving journalists who have been at loggerheads with authorities.
“Somali authorities should stop jailing and harassing journalists at the very time when getting the news is crucial,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “An independent media protected from abuse is key to ensuring that Somalis have information to make informed decisions during the pandemic.”
In February, Amnesty International report dubbed "we live in perpetual fear" accused Al-Shabaab and FGS of being "existential threat" to freedom of media in Somalia. NISA, the report added, had initiated an illegal crackdown against the media, leading to arrests, detentions, and executions without trial.