Concerns rise over freedom of press in Somalia after crackdown on journalists

Published: September 5, 2014
Shabelle Media Network owner Abdimalik Yusuf Mohamed (left) and Somali journalist Mohamed Bashir stand handcuffed near a Mogadishu court in December 2013. Abdimalik was arrested again August 15th and remains in jail pending an investigation in accusations that his radio station aired reports that were
Shabelle Media Network owner Abdimalik Yusuf Mohamed (left) and Somali journalist Mohamed Bashir stand handcuffed near a Mogadishu court in December 2013. Abdimalik was arrested again August 15th and remains in jail pending an investigation in accusations that his radio station aired reports that were

Following the arrest of several Somali journalists in recent weeks, media organisations are crying foul and urging government branches to protect the freedom of the press and ensure due process is followed in criminal cases against journalists.

In the latest round of arrests on Wednesday (September 3rd), security services arrested Dalsan Radio staff manager Abukar Moheydin, who was released a few hours later without charge, and Hassan Ali Gesey, the radio’s director and chairman of the Somali Independent Media Houses Association (SIMHA), for criticising a directive issued by National Security Agency Benadir commander Mohamed Adan Kofi to curb media coverage on security and al-Shabaab related operations.

In a meeting with directors of local media held at Hotel City Plaza in Mogadishu on Tuesday, Kofi said effective immediately media houses could only publish or air official statements from the Ministry of National Security when covering security related news. Gesey, who remains in custody, was arrested after he denounced Kofi’s directive during a number of interviews he gave in his capacity as SIMHA chairman.

“Somalia authorities appear to have committed a double press freedom violation: first they tried to censor the media by asking them not to report on certain military operations, and then they arrested a journalist who dared to criticize the censorship. We call on authorities to release Hassan Gesey immediately and let the press do its job,” said Tom Rhodes, East Africa Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Representatives from SIMHA and the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) also denounced the arrests.

“We are appalled by the arrest of our colleague and call for his unconditional release,” said NUSOJ Secretary General Mohamed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim said NUSOJ forwarded its concerns regarding the Kofi directive to the Ministry of National Security and was awaiting a response.

“The detention of Hassan is nothing other than a violation of freedom of speech and expression,” said SIMHA in a statement, demanding his immediate release and calling on parliament and the administration to intervene.

When asked to comment on the directive, Ministry of National Security spokesman Mohamed Yusuf Omsan told Sabahi on Thursday (August 4th) that the ministry was engaged in discussions regarding the directive but declined to provide additional information.

The need for due process
Somali journalists are also calling for a fair trial for Shabelle Media Network (SMN) owner Abdimalik Yusuf Mohamed, SMN deputy news editor Ahmed Abdi Hassan and the director of Sky FM Mohamud Mohamed Dahir who were arrested on August 15th after the government accused them of “engaging in actions that were a danger to the national security”. At least sixteen other staffers were also arrested in the same operation but released soon after.

“The radio stations of Shabelle and Sky overstepped their legal boundaries and were directly engaged in crime,” Somalia’s Attorney General Ahmed Ali Dahir told Sabahi. “The news they broadcast on August 15th, which was clan incitement and resulted in the deaths of many people, was a crime and the security agencies had a right to arrest them.”

SMN editor Mohamed Bashir Hashi dismissed those allegations, however, saying SMN and Sky FM were independent news stations that never violated any laws.

“The only thing we transmit is the existing reality, but there are people whom the reality bothers. We were violated and our reporters were arrested and our radio stations were shut down illegally. We are really saddened by the problems that we have faced,” he told Sabahi.

In the case of SMN and Sky FM, NUSOJ Secretary General Ibrahim agreed with the government saying the stations may have overstepped the line. Nonetheless, he called for a fair trial for the jailed journalists.

“I was listening to [Radio Shabelle] on the day it was shut down,” Ibrahim told Sabahi. “What it was broadcasting was not normal and they overstepped their boundaries. We are now following their situation and have appointed a committee for it. We hope they will receive a fair trial.”

“We are committed to defending freedom of speech without violating another person’s rights, and the system of the government has to be respected,” he said. “We will work hard to ensure our colleagues who are in custody get a fair trial.”

For his part, head of the Safety of Journalists Union Mohamed Nur Sharifka said it was wrong for the security forces to enter the headquarters of SMN and Sky FM. He requested the immediate trial or release of the journalists who are still in custody.

“First of all, we think it is wrong for the security forces to just storm a media centre because that will pave the way for storming other [media] centres,” Sharifka told Sabahi. “The accused people should have been summoned to court without the use of force and without shutting down their headquarters.”

“The period the reporters have been in custody has gone beyond two weeks now and they have not been brought to court,” he added. “We are calling on the government to bring the men in custody to court and prove their crimes if they have committed any or release them.”

But Dahir, the attorney general, said the court had ordered a 21-day investigation into the journalists in custody.

Media law to provide clear legal framework
Chair of the Somali Women Journalists Association Farhia Mohamed Kheyre said that if the journalists are accused of a crime they should be given a speedy trial; otherwise they should be released.

“Reporters are the same as regular citizens and they can be accused of a crime. However, the important thing is that they should be treated justly,” she told Sabahi. “We are worried about the arrest of the journalists and we are requesting a fair trial for them.”

Kheyre said she is hopeful that the media bill approved by the cabinet on Monday will set clear guidelines for the media and various government officials.

For his part, Information Minister Mustafa Duhulow said there was “urgent need” for the bill.

“[It] will help the reform and the development of the Somali media, and it will also modernise the Somali media, it will create jobs for young people, and it will protect the rights of Somali media workers,” Duhulow said in a statement after the cabinet passed the legislation. “More importantly, this law will also protect civilians from any violation of his or her dignity in the media.”

Journalists who spoke to Sabahi also hailed the draft legislation, saying they expect it will provide the guidelines needed for media professionals to do their job well while safeguarding their rights.

“It is a great feat to even talk about a media law. For 24 years Somali journalists have worked in an environment without any legal framework,” Goobjoog FM Chief Editor Ahmedweli Hussein Mohamud told Sabahi. “We hope this bill will make Somali media balanced.”

“When it passes [in parliament], this law will minimise the conflicts between the media and the government,” said Abdinasir Hersi, a journalist with Radio Bar-Kulan. A clear legal framework will ensure journalists apply due diligence before filing their stories but also compel government agencies to follow due process when mounting a case against a journalist, he added.

The draft media bill will be scheduled for debate in parliament later this month when members return from their summer recess, lawmaker Mohamed Omar Dalha told Sabahi.

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