Journalists in Somalia are increasingly coming under attack. For many years, the main threat to the media has come from Al-Shabaab, the Islamist armed group that controls large parts of the country. But, as a new report by Human Rights Watch has found, journalists are also now being threatened, harassed, and attacked by Somalia’s government and state security forces. With elections set to take place later this year, it’s an important period for ensuring access to information. And as Laetitia Bader told Stephanie Hancock, the media crackdown makes for a chilling climate of censorship, manipulation, and fear.

Somalia is already really dangerous for journalists, so what’s changed?

Somali photojournalist runs for cover while reporting on fighting between the Somali government and African Union forces against the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, April 2012. 

© 2012 Mohamed Abdiwahab

Somalia has long been one of the most deadly countries for journalists. But over the past two years, Somalia’s new government, with the support of its partners, has been trying to establish federal states. The whole map of Somalia is currently being re-drawn, with new boundaries and states, and that is creating friction between Al-Shabaab, the government, and regional clan members and militia all vying for power. Time and time again, journalists told us they’re being targeted from all sides.

So they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Journalists say it’s more like being stuck between the government’s jails and Al-Shabaab’s guns. Superficially Somalia has an incredibly vibrant media scene. There are more than 50 radio stations, but the reality is that the restrictions on the media and the danger reporters face massively reduces what the media can report on. And 2016 is an election year in Somalia, so there are some really key issues that the media needs to be reporting on, but cannot without fear of reprisals.

Like what?

In Somalia’s central region, a Sufi militia group controls two key towns, but the government wants to create a federal state there. Several journalists got phone calls from militia leaders telling them not to report on this process at all; it would be seen as legitimizing a political process they do not support. Journalists who ignored the militia’s orders were arrested by militia forces, and their radio stations temporarily shut down. The director of a radio station that is still closed told us there’s no point going back on air because “we can’t report on critical issues.”

And what does the government not want the media to talk about?

The biggest issue is its fight against Al-Shabaab. A journalist in Puntland said every time he tried to report on a government offensive against Al-Shabaab, he got warnings from local police hinting at “consequences.” But the government also doesn’t want the media to report when Al-Shabaab attacks their troops. Journalists can’t say how many soldiers have been killed or the extent of the attacks. Censorship is so bad that some editors have started telling their reporters to drop the story altogether, because they can’t tell it fairly.

How bad is the censorship problem?

Well, in Mogadishu, intelligence services have put an outright ban on journalists reporting any statement by Al-Shabaab. Journalists who rebroadcast international radio stations like the BBC Somali service and Voice of America talking about the group have been arrested. One reporter said that if their radio station is broadcasting a live news feed from the BBC and it’s clear Al-Shabaab is about to be mentioned, they have to cut straight to advertisements.

So journalists self-censor?

Sometimes, yes. In Somalia officials use violence, threats, and arrests to manipulate the media for political ends. The government tries to use the media in its propaganda war against Al-Shabaab. But reporters are also threatened by Al-Shabaab, who want their side of the story to be told. And media owners often do very little, if anything, to protect their own journalists. As a result, journalists decide not to report on stories they’d actually like to be covering.

Both the Somali government and the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab are using abusive tactics to sway media coverage. 

And what about physical dangers for reporters?

Since 2014, four journalists have been killed in apparent targeted attacks, and in Mogadishu, at least six more have survived assassination attempts. Most of them have been shot, others have been targeted with car bombs. But only one survivor we spoke to was ever interviewed by police afterwards. There’s simply no appetite or interest in investigating.

So there’s no accountability for those who commit abuses?

Yes. This creates a lot of speculation about who is attacking reporters, but it also creates a chilling effect. Those who survived assassination attempts know their attackers are still around, so they live in fear. They’re either too scared to keep reporting or have injuries that mean they can no longer work. Each time this happens, you lose valuable resources in a country that has already lost so many reporters, not only to killings, but to exile too.

No government official is known to have been prosecuted or disciplined for threatening or attacking journalists. There were convictions in April for Al-Shabaab’s alleged involvement in the killing of six journalists. Three defendants were convicted and executed. We have real concerns with their trials, which proceeded very quickly before the country’s notorious military court. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in general, but these circumstances were especially concerning.

Relatives and fellow journalists pray over the body of Somali journalist Yusuf Keynan, on June 21, 2014, during his funeral. Keynan died in Mogadishu after a bomb believed to have been attached to his car was remotely detonated.

© 2014 Getty Images/Mohamed Abdiwahab

Which case particularly shocked you?

The attack on Abdirizak Black. He’s a well-respected TV journalist, who broke a huge story about a gang rape by African Union peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu. One day, a year after he reported on the scandal, as he left his house a car pulled up and someone started shooting at him. He was hit in the hand and ran to a neighbor’s house to try to escape, but the gunman followed him and shot him several times in the back. He spent months recovering, and Somalia’s head of intelligence even personally visited him in hospital and promised to investigate. But the police have never followed up in any way. He says he’s always looking over his shoulder; he never travels twice in the same car, varies his routes, and rarely moves around in public.

So who’s left to report?

That’s part of the problem. Those still willing to stay in Somalia and work as reporters are overwhelmingly young, unpaid, and very vulnerable – vulnerable to manipulation and vulnerable to attack.

Why are journalists unpaid?

As in many countries, media outlets are set up for business reasons, and the owners want to profit. The priority is profit, and of course you don’t have a big advertising sector in Somalia. So media owners rely on committed young people to staff their radio and TV stations. We asked young reporters why they’re willing to work for free and many told us it’s a passion. There are not many career options in Somalia, so people at least want to do something they’re passionate about.

What do ordinary Somalis think about all this?

Somalis are ardent consumers of news, they love it. It’s an oral culture so radio is most popular. When the evening news bulletins start up you can hear the sound reverberating in shops and coffee houses because everyone’s all tuned into the same station. Radio is not something people do at home alone, it’s very much a shared moment. And outside the towns, in rural areas, it’s often people’s only link to the outside world. Which makes censorship so problematic.

Can foreign media help fill the void?

International reporting on Somalia is very limited. Foreign journalists don’t have access to many parts of the country and their reporting can be quite one-dimensional; it’s mainly about terrorism and the military campaign. But there are lots of key issues which are just as important – if not more so – to Somalis, like what the future of the state looks like and who will represent them.

What other stories go untold?

So many things, especially outside Mogadishu. One journalist, in Kismayo, said he can’t expose the terrible conditions inside his local hospital, and he couldn’t report it when a civilian was knocked down and killed by a local security convoy. This impedes investigative reporting. If you can’t even report on basic news, how can you go beyond that and dig deeper?