They get death threats, they need armed escorts and they never take the same route twice – Somali journalists reporting on events in their largely lawless country have to take extreme measures to survive.
The scene of near unremitting conflict for the last 20 years, Somalia has made headlines as the scene of suicide bombings, street battles and pirate attacks on shipping.
Better news has now emerged, with the rebirth of Mogadishu after Islamist rebel fighters retreated last year and this month’s relatively smooth presidential election, the first to take place in the country in 45 years.
Nevertheless, Somalia remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, whether they are reporting from the street or the conference room. And while reporters have made easy targets in the fighting between government forces and Islamist rebels, the dangers that confront the Somali media will be familiar enough to the war-weary inhabitants of Mogadishu, whose bullet-riddled city was for years one of the most dangerous on earth, Reuts reports.
Abdifatah Ahmed, who goes by the nickname Kalga’al, or ‘my dear’, has been a journalist in Somalia for more than a decade.
Wearing his trademark rectangular, tinted sunglasses, the blind journalist said he faced harassment from both sides when reporting the conflict between al Shabaab militants and Somali government forces between 2008 and 2011.
“I’ve received several threatening messages,” said Kalga’al who recently joined independent Goobjoog (Observer) FM, and was sitting down to edit a piece in one of the independent radio station’s soundproof studios.
“Al Shabaab used to send us threatening messages telling us we portrayed them in a bad manner, that we’re biased and that we’ve sided with the government. They warned us that if we didn’t stop, our lives would be in danger.”
“And the government would also send us messages saying we’ve misquoted them,” Kalga’al said in the station’s recently refurbished offices, where workmen were installing closed-circuit security cameras.
“WHEN WILL WE BE NEXT?”
Although Mogadishu is much safer than it was a year ago when Islamist militants roamed the streets fighting Somali government and African peacekeeping troops, al Shabaab rebels are still managing to launch guerrilla suicide tacks.
Last week, three suicide bombers attacked a hotel where the new Somali president and the Kenyan foreign minister were giving a press conference, sending journalists running for cover.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 42 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1992 in Somalia, 25 of whom were murdered because of their reporting.
“The government of Somalia has not registered a single conviction in each of these deaths; if suspects were ever detained they were never brought to trial,” said Mohamed Keita, CPJ’s Africa Advocacy Coordinator.
“The impunity in the killings of journalists in Somalia creates a lasting chill of fear and insecurity that forces other journalists to either flee or self-censor, and the world loses from the reduction of sources of information,” he told Reuters.
The National Union of Somali Journalists says nine journalists and media workers have been killed so far this year forcing many to take security precautions in the face of ever-present danger.
So alarming are the perils facing journalists, some parents have forbidden their children from taking up the career.
“I’m sure they’ll be killed,” said Bile Hussein, who has banned his two sons, recent high school graduates, from being journalists.
“All violent groups in Somalia don’t want to hear the truth. Journalists are always dying for airing important news.”
Seeking safety in numbers, Kalga’al said he often goes with a group of journalists to cover events where the government wants to boast about security gains – events that al Shabaab fighters are most likely to target.
“Whenever we get threatening messages, we feel insecure. We wonder when we will be targeted? At work, or while we’re covering news?” he said, as other colleagues looked over notes for their radio piece.
Despite the dangers, Mogadishu boasts a vibrant media scene – in the capital alone there are 22 radio stations, 7 television stations and three daily newspapers. That translates into hundreds of journalists in the industry, most of whom have not been trained to work in dangerous environments.
Heba Mahmoud, a petite, veiled teenager who is an anchor on a local television station, said she always changes the route she takes to and from work.
“I haven’t joined this job for money, it’s my hobby. But I don’t take the same road twice,” she told Reuters.
Another journalist who works for an international media outlet, but refused to be named, said he limited his movements as much as possible.
“Whenever a colleague of ours is killed, injured or kidnapped we think: ‘When will we be next?,” he said.
“If there’s any story that I think will be sensitive, I steer away from it,” he told Reuters.
SELF-CENSORSHIP AND FEAR
Mohamed Ibrahim, who works for an international English-language newspaper and heads the Somali journalists’ union, said many reporters exercised this form of self-censorship to limit their exposure to stories which might prove dangerous.
He blamed al Shabaab militants for most of the killings, saying they had claimed at least five this year. The Islamists launched their insurgency in 2007, and quickly took over the capital. After seizing control of the mosques, their imams forced television and radio stations to air al Shabaab ideology.
Facing pressure from African peacekeeping troops, who recently captured the port of Marka from the militants, as well as separate military campaigns from Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, the rebels are on the defensive.
“Now they are losing territory day after day and they don’t have the capability to control the media. So (they) are trying to silence the media by killing journalists,” Ibrahim said at the journalists’ union headquarters. As he spoke a random gunshot was heard outside, still a normal occurrence in Mogadishu.
Ibrahim said the government had failed to investigate the killings.
General Abdullahi Barise, head of the criminal investigation unit, said: “We have done thorough investigations, we have more information about the killings of journalists in Mogadishu.” He did not elaborate.
“If the government doesn’t take any action, it’ll be a threat for other journalists,” said Ibrahim, who has received death threats linked to his work.
Four months ago, Ibrahim said he received a call telling him: “You have to stop what you’re doing. You work for the Christians.”
Ibrahim’s solution was not to answer calls from unknown numbers. But like many journalists, who know they can never shield themselves whatever precautions they take, he has become fatalistic.
“I was afraid at first, but later I understood that nobody can kill you unless God wills. That’s how we’ve been working day-to-day since 2007,” Ibrahim said.