By Michael Abraha
“I used to be scared due to the violence facing fellow journalists but now I feel like I am one of them and I believe one day I will also die,” Somali journalist Hassan Gessey
Somalia is the deadliest country in Africa for journalists, with the majority of journalists’ murders going uninvestigated and unpunished. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as of May this year, at least 57 journalists had been killed in Somalia since 1992.
The latest attack on journalists took place on July 26, when two journalists were among 13 people killed in an attack at a hotel in Mogadishu, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
Additionally, radio journalist, Daud Ali Omar, was murdered in the South Central city of Baidua by unknown assailants two months earlier.
These killings have been going on unabated for over two decades with impunity.
For their part, the government continues to commit acts of aggression and intimidation, and imprison journalists for fulfilling their duties of reporting events and raising issues affecting the country.
Avoiding propaganda production
Both the government and the extremist group, Al Shabaab want the media on their side in covering the conflict, which often results in the production of media content which is closer to propaganda than quality news reporting.
Veteran journalist, Hassan Gessey explains that this profession requires an unwavering, long term commitment as well as endurance and stamina.
A Somali journalist constantly confronts threats to his or her existence from numerous directions, and works in the knowledge that every story produced could be their last.
Hassan is co-founder and director of Radio Dalsan FM, a station with 93 young members of staff with a target audience of over 3 million listeners both inside the country and the diaspora. The station’s revenue comes from advertisements, supplemented by some external support.
In addition to its primary studio in Mogadishu, Dalsan FM also has subsidiary stations in the towns of Baidoa, Jowhar and Adado in Southern and South Central Somalia.
Competing with some 40 other media houses, Dalsan is generally regarded as one of the higher quality broadcasters in the country.
Promoting peace through balanced reporting
Hassan explains that one of the station’s main objectives is to promote peace, democracy and development through balanced reporting, noting: “We give fair access to all ranks and we avoid ideas that encourage the continuation of the civil war and community divergences.”
But for those who are not happy with what is aired or printed, arbitrary detentions or killings are the norm, instead of complaints being taken to court.
In a recent interview with Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), Hassan recounts a traumatic incident in Mogadishu in 2009, when Al Shabaab called a press conference with the hidden agenda to murder those in attendance.
Before running away for safety, Hassan witnessed a Shabaab death squad spraying bullets towards fellow journalist, Said Tahlil and fatally wounding him before his eyes.
He explains that there are also appalling government restrictions to grapple with daily. While a press code is yet to be passed, the 2012 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and opinion.
Still Somalia is ranked as the 5th worst violator of press freedom in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders 2014 Report .
Government at loggerheads with press
The government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is at loggerheads with the Somali independent press, often resorting to intimidation and jailing of journalists over the issue of how and what to report on the ongoing fight against Al Shabaab.
The government is keen that the media cover only its official statements and descriptions of events relating to terrorist activities rather than veering from the “official line.”
Hassan is also head of the Somali Independent Media Houses Association (SIMHA). The association was established two years ago to promote understanding between the government and owners of media houses, however their work is rarely uncomplicated, as SIMHA and the authorities naturally have divergent interests and needs.
On September 2, 2014, Hassan led a protest campaign against an order by the Somali National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) instructing the press to report only what the government says about the war against the militants.
This coincided with the launching of the Indian Ocean Operation against Al Shabaab. In a press release and later an interview with Voice of America, Hassan presented the position of the independent media stressing that they could not implement the NISS order as this would reduce them to a propaganda arm of the government.
He was then arrested and detained for 24 hours for non-compliance; but the order was later rescinded because of the protest.
Similarly, in May of this year, the government banned the use of the name Al Shabaab (which means youth) and ordered journalists to call it UGUS meaning “the group that massacres the Somali people.”
Asked how he and his media association responded, Hassan said: “We told the government we could not function like the state media and we threatened to stop working if it tried to implement the restriction.”
So far the government has not tried to enforce the decree although they have not abrogated it, Hassan added.
The Shabaab terror group has threatened to take action against journalists who choose to serve as propaganda tool for the state, leaving Hassan and his colleagues in the free press stuck between the metaphorical rock and hard place.
It is time for President Sheikh Mohamud and his team to realise that propaganda war alone will not end extremism.
A more viable and sustainable option would be for the president to honour those who have sacrificed their lives for press freedom, and encourage dedicated journalists like Hassan, while working on an effective plan to combat extremism within their society.