Harassed, Arrested, Gagged: A Report From Somalia

Mogadishu's Independent Media Battle a Government Crackdown

Mohamed Farah Italy, a reporter with independent Radio Simba in Mogadishu, was helming one of the station’s call-in shows on the evening of November 11 when the phone rang. The speaker claimed to be Moqtar Roboow, a well-known spokesman for the Islamic insurgent groups battling federal troops and the occupying Ethiopian army.

“He came to the line and his views were aired that night,” Italy recalls. “The government themselves listened to the interview. And in the morning they stormed the station and forced the radio off the air.”

Italy and his director Abdullah Ali were arrested and jailed for six days. Only intervention by Italy’s clan leaders secured his release. But Radio Simba remained shuttered: Italy and the rest of the station’s staff found themselves out of work.

“They said I should show them where Roboow is since I had an interview with him.” But Italy had no idea where the insurgent spokesman was hiding. “I’m a journalist,” he said.

Italy’s tale is typical in a city that has seen steadily mounting violence since Ethiopian troops destroyed the hard-line Islamic Courts regime in Mogadishu in the spring. (Christian Ethiopia had felt threatened by the Courts’ apparent religious extremism.) The Ethiopian invasion cleared the way for a loose alliance of northern clans—the so-called Transitional Federal Government—to declare itself the sole government of Somalia and occupy Mogadishu alongside the Ethiopians. In March a tiny African Union peacekeeping force seized Mogadishu’s airport and seaport, hoping for a follow-on U.N. force that has yet to materialize.

The new and widely unpopular government, based 100 miles north in Baidoa, has just managed to hang on to power, in part by suppressing reporting on fighting that has claimed around 7,000 lives this year. Eight Somali reporters also have died.

“They don’t want people talking about what is happening in Mogadishu,” Ahmed Omar Hashi, a veteran reporter for Shabelle Radio, says of the government.

There is evidence that the Simba shutdown was premeditated—that Roboow’s call-in was just the excuse the government was waiting for. Beginning in the fall, government troops targeted Mogadishu’s ten independent radio stations and stepped up harassment of stringers for foreign publications. In early September, at the close of the Muslim holy week of Ramadan, government armored vehicles shot up Shabelle Radio’s offices during a staff meeting. (There were only minor injuries.) Shabelle, Banadir, and Simba were all ordered indefinitely closed over a three-day period in November. Three other stations were temporarily gagged.

It wasn’t always like this, says Shabelle director Moqtar Mohamed Hirabe. He says that in the 1990s, when Mogadishu was partitioned by rival warlords, and even last year during the Islamic Courts regime’s brief rule, freelancers and privately owned media thrived.

Shabelle in particular was an important part of city residents’ daily lives. Hashi scripted and performed a satirical radio drama targeting Mogadishu’s poorly trained doctors. And every morning for its “Today in Mogadishu” program, Shabelle sent out a dozen reporters all over Mogadishu to call in with live reports of security problems so that commuters and shoppers could plan the safest routes. In the ’90s, Shabelle and other independent media even played important roles in mediating warlord conflicts, according to Hashi.

With their stations silenced, scores of radio workers were suddenly jobless. Still the harassment continued. Many reporters receive anonymous death threats via mobile phone, text message and email. Hashi in particular gets so-called “no number” phone calls at least twice a day.

The government has assigned soldiers to find and arrest freelance reporters stringing for international media, according to Mustafa Haji Abdiner, whose reporting and photos have appeared in Agence France-Presse wire reports and in The New York Times. Stringers who aren’t arrested have their equipment confiscated. “You can’t even carry cameras in your pockets,” Abdiner says.

With as many as forty Mogadishu media workers seeking refuge in Kenya and scores of others on the run in Somalia, in late November the crisis reached a critical point. The heads of ten independent radio stations—including Simba, Shabelle, and Banadir—drafted a petition calling on the government in Baidoa to honor the transitional federal constitution, which guarantees press freedom, and to empower the Ministry of Information to serve as a liaison between government and media. The document, which was handed to government on November 23, also called upon the international community to “pressure the [Transitional Federal Government] to stop the violations against the media.”

To call attention to its plea, the station heads promised a twenty four-hour broadcast blackout.

In an apparent counterstrike, on November 24 Mogadishu’s volatile mayor Mohamed Omar Habeeb called a meeting with media leaders laying out new and more restrictive rules: the city’s press was barred from citing specific numbers when reporting on refugees fleeing the city and was required to clear with authorities any coverage of military operations.

Despite Habeeb’s backlash, in late November Shabelle boss Hirabe expressed hope that sympathetic members of parliament in Baidoa would order restrictions lifted. Indeed, the week prior, veteran parliamentarian Abdirizak Osman Hassan had called on Somalia’s new prime minister to ensure greater transparency and respect for human rights from the transitional government. Whereas many senior leaders in the transition government are former warlords, new prime minister Nur Hussein Hassan is a retired policeman who has worked for the Red Cross in Somalia.

On December 4, there was an apparent breakthrough. Hashi, the Shabelle producer, sent a text message to reporters announcing that Shabelle, Simba, and Banadir were back on the air, at least temporarily, after agreeing to a watered-down version of Habeeb’s restrictions.

But the harassment and death threats continue.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

David Axe is a military correspondent living in Washington, D.C. Since 2005 he has reported from Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan and Somalia. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Times, C-SPAN and BBC Radio, among many others. His graphic novel war memoir WAR FIX made Amazon's 2006 top ten list. ARMY 101, his nonfiction tale about Army ROTC, debuted in January 2007. He blogs alongside tech writer Noah Shachtman at Danger Room and at his own blog, warisboring.com.