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The attack on Somali television director Abdirisak Jama – known as “Black” – who was shot and seriously wounded by gunmen outside his home in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, on October 12, highlights once again the dangers facing Somali media. As if the killings and shootings weren’t bad enough, Somali journalists are facing new threats – a draft media law that contains several troubling provisions and a spate of arrests.
The Somali Cabinet endorsed the draft law in September but the text has only recently been publicized. The law gives the National Media Council the power to impose severe sanctions, including fines of US$5,000 to $10,000, on journalists and media houses for ill-defined offenses, including “falsification” and “baseless propaganda.” Additionally, the law proposes that the Ministry of Information appoint 6 of the 13 council members, clearly compromising the council’s independence. Other provisions on media ethics and “unregistered” media are broad, vaguely defined, and could be misused or prompt self-censorship.
President Hassan Sheikh himself has committed to respecting media freedom but there have been a string of arrests and prosecutions of journalists on his watch, including by Somalia’s intelligence agency, NISA, which has no clear legal mandate to arrest and detain individuals.
In February, NISA detained Mohamed Haji Bare from Radio Danan and Ibrahim Mohamed from Radio Haatuf for three days, threatening and beating them severely, reportedly for taking photos of a deputy governor injured in a car bomb.
On August 15, following two controversial broadcasts, NISA raided Radio Shabelle and Sky FM and arrested 19 journalists and media workers. Several journalists alleged mistreatment during interrogations at “Godka-Jilaow,” a NISA detention facility. All but three were subsequently released. Shabelle Media Network owner Abdimalik Yusuf Mohamed, Sky FM director Mohamud Mohamed Dahir, known as “Mohamed Arab,” and Radio Shabelle presenter Ahmed Abdi Hassan were remanded on charges of high treason and inciting violence, among other charges. Radio Shabelle editor, Mohamed Bashir Hashi, has also been arrested. The four are currently detained in Mogadishu Central prison, with no date set for their hearing.
On September 3, NISA briefly arrested and questioned Hassan Gessey, director of the independent Dalsan radio after he criticized a NISA order calling on journalists to restrict reporting on a Somali-African Union military offensive against the Islamist armed group Al-Shabaab.
While some Somali journalists and media outlets sometimes overstep professional ethics, putting new restrictions on their ability to operate is not the right solution. Instead, President Hassan and the Somali parliament should ensure that new laws support free expression and encourage radio and television stations to promote a diverse, professional, and vibrant public debate. The president should also rein in abusive security forces and call for credible investigations into attacks on journalists, including allegations of mistreatment by the intelligence. Journalists and media houses should not be forced to choose between reporting on key issues and their very existence.