The transitional Somali government’s decision to close three leading radio stations in Mogadishu is a serious blow to freedom of expression and the right to impart and receive information in Somalia, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 6, while the International Contact Group on Somalia was meeting in London, the Somali minister of information, Madobe Nunow Mohammed, signed a decree ordering the management of HornAfrik Media, Shabelle Media Network and Radio Holy Koran to close their stations with immediate effect. HornAfrik and Shabelle run two of the largest and most popular radio stations in Somalia.

“This decree sends the signal that the transitional government does not tolerate independent media in Somalia,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Local radio stations give millions of Somalis access to news and opportunities to voice their opinions. The transitional government must stop trying to muzzle free expression and prevent dissemination of information.”

The decree accuses the three stations of inciting hostility, support for terrorism, violating independent media laws, confusing the public and being “anti-government.” But the decree does not specify which laws were violated by the media organizations, nor does it provide examples of media misconduct. All three stations have gone off air since receiving the decree.

Journalists in Mogadishu have been under pressure for years from successive authorities, including the Union of Islamic Courts, which controlled Mogadishu until late last year. Since January, when the TFG and Ethiopian forces ousted the Islamic Courts movement, efforts to clamp down on major media outlets have intensified. The decree is just the latest example in a pattern of closures of media companies and arbitrary detentions of individual journalists by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

“The Transitional Federal Government is entitled to regulate the media, but its efforts must be in line with international law,” said Takirambudde. “International donors should immediately call on the Somali government to reverse this decree and ensure freedom of expression and the media.”

HornAfrik, Shabelle, Radio Holy Koran and the international television broadcaster Al-Jazeera were all temporarily closed after the TFG and Ethiopian forces entered Mogadishu in January. In February the TFG threatened to censor HornAfrik, Shabelle and Radio Benadir. In March, Al-Jazeera’s Mogadishu bureau closed after the Somali National Security Agency sent a letter ordering it to stop operations but without offering any further explanation. Al-Jazeera’s office in Mogadishu has remained closed since March 21.

Since January, at least five journalists have been arrested and detained without charge. Three journalists working for Universal TV were arrested in April simply for asking questions in an exclusive interview with the TFG spokesman. They were accused of “inciting confrontation” and released after 46 days in prison. Two journalists working for Shabelle Media were briefly detained without charge by Somali government officials in March.

The International Contact Group on Somalia – comprising the United States, the European Union, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Tanzania – met in London on June 6, days before Somalia’s National Reconciliation Congress is scheduled to open in Mogadishu on June 14.