(New York) - Three Somali journalists have been awarded the prestigious Hellmann/Hammett award in recognition for their journalism while risking their lives and suffering terrible hardships in the midst of Somalia’s worsening armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.

Abdullahi Mohammed Hassan, founder of the Ayaamaha newspaper; Mohamed Amiin Sheik Adow, of Radio Shebelle; and Abdi Dhaqane Ciye, a cameraman for HornAfrik media, were among the 34 Hellmann/Hammett grants awarded worldwide in 2008. Both Amiin and Hassan fled Somalia in response to a barrage of death threats, while Dhaqane was seriously injured in April 2007 by artillery fire while filming Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.

“These three journalists exemplify the courage and dedication of Somalia’s independent press,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, their ordeals illustrate how Somalia’s slide into unprecedented violence and chaos threatens even the most resilient Somali institutions.”

The Hellman/Hammett grants, administered by Human Rights Watch, are given annually to writers and journalists who face political persecution for their work. The grant program began in 1989 when the American playwright Lillian Hellman willed that her estate be used to assist writers in financial need as a result of difficulties stemming from their public expression of their views.

Somalia has been plagued with violence since the collapse of its central government in 1991. The overall situation has deteriorated considerably since Ethiopian military forces entered the country in 2006 to oust a nascent Islamist movement that Ethiopia’s government saw as a threat to its security. Since then, Somalia has become mired in brutal and indiscriminate warfare between increasingly powerful insurgent groups and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is backed by Ethiopian military forces.

The armed conflict has crippled institutions, from hospitals to schools, which had previously found ways of functioning despite Somalia’s chronic violence and lack of an effective central government. Not least among these has been Somalia’s independent media.

Somalia has long been home to a range of thriving independent newspapers and radio stations, many of which continue to report courageously on events across the country. As a result, journalists have been targeted by all sides of the conflict. TFG militias have carried out raids on media outlets and arbitrarily detained journalists who have reported on their numerous failures and abuses. Members of insurgent groups are widely believed to have repeatedly threatened independent journalists with assassination, apparently to coerce them into changing their coverage of events.

Nine Somali journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2007, and at least five of those were assassinated. As many as 100 others have fled the country, often in the face of repeated death threats or actual attacks upon their homes or offices. While the Somali press has continued to play a vital role in gathering and reporting information about the ongoing conflict, the loss of so many dedicated professionals has taken a heavy toll. Like many others, the three Somali journalists awarded Hellman/Hammett grants have all suffered greatly in the pursuit of their profession.

Abdullahi Mohammed Hassan has for more than a decade been among Somalia’s most celebrated investigative journalists, writing among other things a pioneering series of articles documenting abuses suffered by minority clans in some parts of Somalia. In October 2007, he was arrested by TFG forces following a raid on his newspaper’s office. He ultimately fled Somalia after unknown gunmen arrived at the office looking for him; he was away at the time. He remains in exile.

Mohamed Amiin Sheik Adow served as the deputy director of Radio Shabelle, one of Somalia’s preeminent independent radio stations. Radio Shabelle has consistently produced reports critical of insurgent, TFG, and Ethiopian forces alike. In September 2007, the station was raided twice by TFG forces – and during the second raid the attackers riddled the premises with gunfire as staff sought cover inside. Amiin ultimately fled Mogadishu following numerous threats against his life. Radio Shabelle has continued to suffer harassment by the authorities; it was raided again most recently in March 2008.

Abdi Dhaqane Ciye is a cameraman working for the local HornAfrik media house as well as Reuters news agency. In April 2007, he was seriously injured by a shell which exploded nearby as he was filming ongoing fighting from the roof of a Mogadishu building. In spite of his ordeal, he continues to work as a cameraman covering the conflict in Mogadishu.

The impact of Somalia’s worsening conflict on ordinary civilians has been devastating. More than 700,000 people have fled the war-torn capital of Mogadishu – more than 60 percent of the city’s original population. In Mogadishu and in other towns and cities, Somalis find themselves caught between TFG and Ethiopian forces, which are prone to murder, looting, and collective punishment, and insurgent groups, which have carried out targeted assassinations and other abuses against perceived rivals and enemies.