Shabaabs, impunity leading threats to journalism in Somalia

Somali Journalists

Somali journalists on assignment in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab is still the biggest violator of media freedom in Somalia with findings showing at least two journalists were killed last year.

Photo credit: Courtesy | NUSOJ

Militant group al-Shabaab are still the biggest violators of media freedom in Somalia, even as the safety of journalists is also at the mercy of some government administrators acting with impunity.

Findings from the latest Annual State of Media Freedom Report in Somalia show that at least two journalists were killed last year, six others injured in their line of duty and yet several dozens were arrested, illegally detained or tortured for doing their work.

And as with most of the cases in the past, these two deaths were attributed to al-Shabaab violence. They died in separate explosions mounted by the militant group. Al-Shabaab also caused serious injuries to five journalists who were caught up in their attacks. In most cases, these journalists were attacked for their critical reporting on the group.

But according to the report, the threats against media freedom are not exclusive to al-Shabaab militants. The ‘high degree’ of impunity, it says, shields some government officials both at the federal member states and federal government levels to get away with violations against journalists as there has been little law enforcement against attacks on journalists.

“Somalia has brilliant and brave journalists but, equally, there are dangerous and deadly forces that will seize any opportunity to throw journalists into jail, inflict violence on news men and women, and force them to comply with illegal orders. Some reporters end up paying the ultimate price for their service to society,” said Faruk Osman, Secretary-General of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), the local media freedom lobby that produces the annual report.

“In a country where journalists are killed and injured, where the right to access public information remains elusive, and where female journalists feel threatened both in and outside the newsroom, there is an urgent need for duty-bearers to end the ongoing atrocities and make journalism safe.”

This year’s edition, Clear and Present Danger: Somali Journalists Face Persistent Internal and External Threats to Media Freedom, confirms Somalia’s enduring problem with press freedom, where at least one journalist is threatened, attacked, or even killed every year.

An earlier finding by Reporters without Borders (RSF) had, however, showed that Somalia’s media ranking had slightly improved in the Covid-19 years, rising from 161 out of 180 countries polled in 2021 to 140 out of 180 in 2022.

NUSOJ, however, found that violations against female journalists are still prevalent.

At least 28 female journalists reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence while in line of duty.

They were “subjected to threats of rape and online harassment, often channeled through their social media accounts,” it says, indicating the problem of online bullies.

“It is thought that the reported cases of SGBV represent a small fraction of the true figure, since the fear of public censure deters women from speaking out or taking their complaints to the authorities.”

In the entire country, at least 95 attacks on media outlets and journalists were recorded in 2022. These attacks often included arrests, torture, threats of violence, sexual harassment, confiscation of equipment or travel bans.

Some 56 journalists were arrested, including 24 detained in Somaliland region, the self-declared republic. Most of those arrested were freed without charge, having been held for several days or even weeks. 

One journalist was seriously wounded by the police in Mogadishu.

NUSOJ says it considers acts as violations against journalists or media outlets if journalists are attacked because of their work or “when legal provisions are used to curtail the rights and freedoms of journalists or infringe overall media rights.”

That means that while journalists arrested for committing crimes and brought before civilian courts may not necessarily count as violations, they may raise concerns if specific laws are used to specifically harass journalists. In Somalia, however, journalists are sometimes taken before military courts.

Somalia, recently amended the Media law, for example.

But NUSOJ says some of the provisions have been used by authorities to target journalists. When Somalia recently announced restrictions on coverage of al-Shabaab narratives, the directive was criticised for lacking clarity in what should or should not be covered.

“Some of the language used in the press release was too vague to serve as a basis for applying the law in an even-handed and fair manner.

“For example, terms such as ‘extremist ideology’ and ‘terrorist messages’ are unclear and could be used for political purposes. In this context, it would be more normal to employ terminology such as “incitement to terrorism” or ‘incitement to violence’ which infer that the message intends to incite others and may already have had this effect.”