Somali journalists are under assault. Not only is the country one of the deadliest places for media workers, the year-old government is weighing a restrictive media law. The European Union, one of the African’s country’s most important supporters, needs to be more forceful in ensuring a free media environment in Somalia, writes Alison Bethel McKenzie.
Alison Bethel McKenzie is executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna.
I am near certain that when Libaan Abdullahi Farah decided to become a journalist, he didn’t think it would lead to his death. But on 7 July, that’s exactly what happened. The news of the murder of Farah (also known as Liban Qaran) is horrific, but what is even more tragic is that he is one of at least seven Somali media workers killed so far this year, putting the African nation in the same league as Syria, Pakistan and Egypt as the world’s deadliest places for journalists.
Liban Qaran was a TV journalist who was on his way from work when he was shot four times in the throat, chest and legs. He died on the way to the hospital. His death was followed on 16 August by the murder of veteran state radio and TV engineer Ahmed Sharif.
The brazen killings and their impact on journalism drew the attention of Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova, who said after Liban Qaran’s death, “All too many media workers in the country have paid with their lives for our right to be kept informed. I pay tribute to their dedication and call on the authorities to spare no effort to stop these killings.”
Besides the shocking death toll, press freedom advocates are also keeping a keen eye on another struggle of the media: top-level efforts to restrict the rights of journalists and to keep a handle on the news. Members of the National Union of Somali Journalists and other groups have bravely sought to suppress efforts to impose a law that would require reporters to reveal their sources and that forbids them from writing anything deemed anti-Islamic or against Somali traditions.
But while this draft law – which was recently put on hold by Somalia’s prime minster until it can be revised – potentially poses great problems, the bigger, more immediate issue is the continued assault on media workers.
Instead of investing its energy into trying to censor the press, the government should be sending a message that it is not acceptable to attack and kill journalists, and that such violence will not be tolerated in a democratic society. Somalia’s leaders should also make it clear that those who try to silence the voice of the media will be held accountable in the courtroom.
The Somali government’s international partners must also be more forceful. The European Union, United States and United Nations – the country’s heavyweight development and humanitarian supporters – are all determined to see the current government succeed. The EU and US have pledged to support economic and political stability, including the construction of democratic institutions from scratch in a country that last had a functioning central government more than 20 years ago.
The world can’t expect miracles in Somalia. The current parliament is barely a year old and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who marks his first year in office on 12 September, faces a daunting task of state-building. But the new leadership seems to be getting off track by considering legislation that would restrict the news media, a perverse diversion for a government that has promised its people and international benefactors democracy and security. The news media play a fundamentally critical role, by keeping Somalis informed about the needs and challenges of the nation.
As Unesco’s Irina Bokova said in condemning the murder of Radio Mogadishu’s Ahmed Sharif and his other fallen colleagues, “These criminal acts are a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression and press freedom, both of which are particularly important in a country seeking to rebuild after so many years of conflict.”
Only then will Somali journalists begin to believe that there is hope – hope that their colleagues like Liban Qaran, Ahmed Sharif and so many others will stop dying, and hope that they can fulfil their ambition of shedding light on the inner workings of their nation in order to inform and empower the country.