Mohyadin Hassan Mohamed Hosni knew that disguising himself as a woman was his only way out. Under pressure from his family to escape, the 26-year-old journalist did just that one October afternoon in 2009.
He put on a long, loose-fitting jilbaab (robe), donned a veil, and headed out of Baidoa town, located in the Bay region of southwestern Somalia, to the capital Mogadishu.
It was just a few weeks after Al Shabaab raided and closed down Radio Warsan, a privately owned radio station in Baidoa for “defying our order not to air songs and music” and for not relaying the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan.
Just when media freedom organisations were criticising Al Shabaab’s move, Al Shabaab proposed to Hosni that he comes on board and manage the radio station since he was a dedicated reporter and was familiar with the region.
Weighing his options, Hosni, a former reporter and editor with the station, and at the time doing freelance work for media organisations all over Somalia, turned down the offer.
For his troubles, he was put under house arrest and the compound he shared with his family surrounded by armed men.
Hosni’s pregnant wife and sister beseeched him to escape — but none could suggest a way to sneak out of the well-guarded house.
Working against the clock, one of Hosni’s sisters, Halimo, contacted a relative who was a taxi driver. The driver agreed to smuggle Hosni out of town to Mogadishu.
The taxi driver initially balked at the idea of Hosni sneaking out dressed as a woman, but eventually relented.
Around noon, on a cool October day, Hosni sat in the passenger’s seat of an old Toyota Corolla and headed for Mogadishu.
A young boy sat squeezed next to the burqa-clad Hosni. Along the way, they were stopped only once, and the young boy was chastised for “cramming the space on a decent Muslim sister” and was sent to sit in the backseat with the rest of the men, while Hosni, smiling nervously behind the veil and squeezing his already sweating fingers, occupied the passenger seat till they arrived in Mogadishu.
“When we came into Mogadishu, the images of my sister and my wife and my family flashed through my mind,” Hosni said a few weeks ago in an interview. “The pain of leaving home had just dawned on me. I was alone in this city, and had nowhere or no one to turn to.”
Little did he know that barely three years later, he would make that same journey not within Somalia, but across the border out of Somalia, fearing for his life.
For over two decades, Somalia’s journalists have braved adversity and danger to report on the country’s political and socio-economic challenges.
They have withstood defamation, detention and assassinations to inform, educate and entertain Somalia from Cape Hafun to Cape Aseyr.
They have set the bar for what it means to be a journalist as militiamen, warlords, hardline Islamists, and at times their own government, targeted them for their reporting.
“I often feel a combination of being overwhelmed and frustrated because of the chorus of cries that is coming from Somalia’s journalists,” Tom Rhodes, a consultant on East Africa for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 41 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 1992, and in its 2012 Impunity Index, an annual report that spotlights countries where journalists are slain and killers go free, Somalia ranks second in the world for the third year in a row, just behind Iraq and way ahead of Mexico, Russia and Pakistan.
Besides, in its 2011 report, the National Union of Somali Journalists stated that besides killings, 19 Somali journalists were arbitrarily arrested, there were seven attacks on media organisations and at least five prosecutions for criminal defamation.
Even with the lull that Mogadishu is experiencing since Al Shabaab was kicked out of the city by Amisom in August 2011, journalists are still targeted, maimed and killed: A Somali journalist has been killed every month since the beginning of 2012, including one on May 3, the eve of World Press Freedom Day, and another at the the end of May, bringing the total deaths to six.
Abdirizak Mire Dhoore, the founding manager of the Horn Cable Television bureau in Mogadishu, left Somalia after escaping death by a whisker. Dhoore, a clear-eyed and eloquent 26-year-old journalist, who carries a scar he got on his forehead when a bomb went off during a press conference, was a close associate and colleague of Abdisalan Sheikh Hassan, who was allegedly gunned down by a man wearing government uniform in December 2011.
“The Mogadishu bureau of HCTV didn’t file a news story for a month after Abdisalan was killed,” Dhoore said, focusing rather on “mourning the death of our colleague, showing his life as a journalist and recording the demonstrations we held in front of the Presidential Villa.”
It was at this time, he says, that he started receiving text messages threatening to kill him. However, even though the media fraternity suspected that a government officer had killed Abdisalan, the messages Dhoore received had the undertones of Al Shabaab.
“Peace be upon you, Abdirizak Mire Dhoore,” read one of the messages, “God willing, very soon, the arm of the jihadists will reach you. You have survived and eluded us for long.”
Then, one evening, going home after work, as he slowed down at a roadblock, two men standing on the side of the road came close to the car window.
“It is him. Shoot him! Shoot him in the head!” one of the men shouted. Before the second could remove his pistol from under his belt, Dhoore says, he had floored the accelerator and sped off.
“Abdirizak, you survived today. We wanted to kill you in your car. God willing, very soon, we will offer you as a sacrifice to God,” warned the message that came through that night to his phone.
Escape from murder
In 2006, just a few months after he became an editor with Radio Warsan, Mohyadin Hosni started out as a contributing reporter in the Bay and Bakool region for Shabelle Radio. As an independent radio station, Shabelle was fast rising to become one of the most important sources of news in the country.
In April 2009, three years after he took up the job with Shabelle, and seven months before his house arrest, Hosni filed a news report that detailed Al Shabaab ’s extortionist practices in the Bay region.
The radio piece essentially captured the disgruntled residents’ voices, who said that the levy collected by the group from businesses was too high.
Hosni was summoned to the local station after the report went on air and ordered to reveal the people he talked to for the piece.
When he refused, he was jailed for seven days in a room that had no mattress, was lashed on several occasions, splashed with cold water deep in the night, and was barely fed for the week. As he was held in custody, a court found him guilty and was sentenced to death.
“I remember those days. I was just thinking of what would happen to Hosni,” remembers Maahiye Abdinur Yussuf, a journalist from Baidoa.
“They were going round town announcing that people should come out on Friday and watch his execution.”
However, with the intervention of local elders, Hosni was forced to address a press conference and recant the radio piece as “propaganda and intended malice against the soldiers of God in Somalia”.
The journalists covering the event, knowing all too well how things were going, did not even bother broadcasting the stage-managed act of contrition “they only mentioned that I was released by Al Shabaab,” he said.
Seven months later, locked up in his house, facing a similar fate, Hosni, disguised as a burqa-clad woman, headed off for an unknown future in Mogadishu.
After arriving in the capital, he headed straight for the Shabelle Radio offices and for more than six months, worked, slept and lived in the station’s offices in the Bakara Market. At one point, Al Shabaab even distributed leaflets in the market asking anyone who knows of his whereabouts to disclose them.
Generally, 2009 was a hard one for Shabelle reporters: Four of the station’s journalists were killed, including the director Mukhtar Mohamed Hiraabe, who was shot dead as he walked to work.
Feeling the pinch, in June 2010, Shabelle’s managers decided to stealthily move its base from the Bakara Market, to a building very close to the Aden Abdulle International Airport, a safe zone manned by the Amisom and Transitional Federal Government officers.
There, Hosni became a news editor, and relished the moment when they played national and patriotic songs on radio on the 50th anniversary of Somalia’s Independence. (Al Shabaab had ordered Somalis and the country’s radio stations to boycott celebrations of the Somali national day on July 1.)
As the station spread its coverage across the country, it started carrying stories on corruption in the Banadir regional administration.
The first of these reports, Hosni says, was broadcast in 2011 and it discussed corruption at the Mogadishu port, which upset government officials.
When the station’s news director, Hassan Osman Abdi, nicknamed “Fantastic,” aired a similar report in early January, Hosni joked with Hassan that “Either way, one of us will die because of these reports.” Barely two days later, on the January 28, Hassan was gunned down outside his home in Mogadishu.
A few days later, Hosni, still shocked, received a message: “You are next. Get your grave ready.”
And so it happened, that on March 25, two men shot at and wounded Hosni as he came back home from work. “I ran and ran. I thought this was it. There was no way I could escape. I was trapped between two men who both carried pistols,” he recalls, slowly rubbing the scar that one of the bullets inflicted on his arm, and raising his hand in supplication. “I am very thankful to Allah I got away with only an injury.”
As Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack on Somali websites, Hosni packed his bags and headed for safety – first out of Mogadishu and then out of Somalia. The next time he phoned his family he was in Nairobi, Kenya.
No means to an end
For all the dangers they face, Somalia’s journalists might turn out to be their own worst enemies. With little or no professional training, poor language proficiency, and lack of proper editorial guidelines for media houses, the journalists are caught between the various warring sides, who all want to sway the coverage to their benefit.
Besides, with meagre salaries and unsafe working conditions, incidence of corruption and professional misconduct has increased within the Somali media.
A 2010 report by the National Union of Somali Journalists detailed the gross violations of the labour rights of the Somali journalists, calling the media workers “the most overworked, most exploited and most abused” in the world.
“The best person is paid $50, at a maximum $100. This is outrageous,” says Maahiye Abdi Nuur Yussuf, an exiled journalist in Kenya, who once worked with Radio Warsan and Horn Afrik stations.
Yussuf says many journalists work for years without pay. The situation is so grim that when journalists are threatened, injured or forced into exile, media houses just stop paying salaries.
“The salary stops the minute you leave Mogadishu, even if it is for your own safety; the station owners don’t care,” Yussuf said.
“I was earning $100 even as a news director. This is just standard pay,” Hosni said. When he was injured in late March, his family paid for all the expenses, while his employer, he says, only gave him $50 to clear his expenses.
“Sometimes you look at some critically injured journalists and you want to think that they would be better off if they were dead and buried,” Yussuf, who is now affiliated with the Centre for Peace and Journalism, said. “Journalists really suffer when they are injured.”
Escape to hell
For the increasing number of Somali journalists who have been forced into exile, life has been equally tough. With no work permits, legal residence visas, or relatives to take care of them, they have been living in gruelling circumstances.
For example, veteran radio journalist Hassan Mohamed aka Hassan “Jaceyl,” escaped Mogadishu in 2010 after being threatened, shot at twice and the radio station he worked for, Horn Afrik, seized by Al Shabaab.
Jaceyl, who had severe diabetes, could not even find enough money to buy medication when he came to Kenya. His right leg was amputated in 2011 following complications, and in March 2012, he died after several weeks in a diabetic coma.
“The only silver lining in the dark cloud of this case is that it opened people’s eyes to the problem of Somali journalists; that it is a serious issue,” Tom Rhodes from CPJ said.
The newly established Somali Exiled Journalists Network Association estimates that there are close to 200 Somali journalists living in Nairobi and the refugee camps in Dadaab. CPJ put Kenya as the destination of choice for many exiled journalists.
However, the biggest problem is that journalists are treated like any other refugees flooding into Kenya. Mohamed Garane, an advocate for Somali journalists, says that the process of registration and requiring the right papers for the journalists is very complicated.
“We expected the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to prioritise the journalists’ needs because they are the voice of the voiceless, but that didn’t happen,” Garane says. “Some went in to register in 2011 and were told to come back in 2013. That is a very long time.”
Rhodes, however, believes that the UNHCR delay in processing documents is not about lack of will, but lack of resources.
“There are just few officers to address the huge number of cases involving journalists that are piling up on their desks.”
Despite this, the exiled reporters say their own safety within Kenya is not guaranteed as they still receive threats from undisclosed sources.
Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed Ilkacase, who previously worked for the Somalia Broadcasting Corp in the semi-autonomous Puntland and left home in 2008 after being threatened by Al Shabaab, still gets threatening phone calls and messages.
“Once I was coming out of the mosque in the evening, and somebody called me and said, ‘Are you in the mosque to pray, or are you spying for the people you worked for?’ I was shocked,” he said.
No one to trust
Mohamed agreed to an interview for this story on one condition: That I meet him up at the Somali embassy in Nairobi. “I just don’t meet anyone, anywhere nowadays; It is not safe.”
For media watchdogs and advocates, the situation of Somali journalists can be improved by providing mechanisms that will assist both the exiled journalists and those within the country in the long run.
Advocates like Tom Rhodes even say that they are “a little bit reluctant to push for resettlement” in countries in the West, since it hinders the journalists’ professional development once they relocate, finding themselves working as waiters or in low-paying jobs just to survive.
The solution, he says, is to urge both local and international media houses to hire more Somali journalists.
“The world should watch closely the situation of the Somali journalists,” Garane says. “The level of professionalism is really going down in the country and very fast.”
For Ilkacase, Hosni, Dhoore and many more exiled Somali journalists, the stay in Kenya is just another phase of lives shaped by tragedy, immigration, death and constant fear.
“I don’t know what will be next, but I hope for the best,” Hosni said.
“Tomorrow, God willing, will be a better day.”