The World Press Freedom was marked on May 3 with calls for an end to gagging of the media. In the region, Somali practitioners repeated an old song: “calling for an end to impunity”.
Somalia has been the worst country in the Horn to work in as a journalist. For the past 15 years, at least 80 journalists have been killed — mostly blamed on al Shabaab.
But press lobbies there say the trend has also included government officials abusing their powers to frustrate a free press.
Omar Farouk Osman and his colleague Nima Hassan Abdi, lead a local lobby known as the National Union of Journalists (Nusoj). This week, they were in Nairobi to mark the World Press Freedom Day.
“I have seen the practice of journalism change over time in my country. When I started, there was a huge challenge of security but now, we face even more difficulties from the social media platforms,” Omar said.
Not that Somalia’s challenge with the trolls or fake news is unique. It is the same in the region and other African countries.
Competition and threat
TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have become major platforms for mainstream media to share their content, according to one recent study by the Media Council of Kenya.
In Somalia, the challenge is competition and a threat.
“Both broadcast and print media are challenged by social media back home,” Omar said.
“I know some radio stations who have now completely forgotten about updating their websites on the news and what’s happening. What is happening now is media houses, and radio stations are using social media for their own advantage.
“People don’t see how we can address this, because it’s easier for journalists to update social media accounts so that they feed the public even before they reach the newsroom,” stated Omar, the secretary general of Nusoj.
He believes mainstream media must adapt. But there is another problem: For Somali journalists, where the law starts and ends is never clear. And whether a law is archaic is also not clear, a weak judiciary means courts are unlikely to strike out clauses of law deemed unconstitutional. So, government officials use that to protect themselves from negative coverage either by threatening journalists or refusing to provide information.
“Journalists are arrested in Somalia, but there is something that has become infamous: a journalist is convicted before even being charged. What is being used is a penal code of Somalia which is very old; it was enacted into law in 1972,” said Omar.
No media council
Somalia has no media council, meaning no self-regulation too. The welfare is left to unions like Omar’s. Even his is limited, with just 1,200 registered practitioners working in its various regions.
It is worse for female journalists. Within the nine major television networks, the Somali Journalists Union says that the number of women in leadership is negligible.
Female journalists are also facing discriminatory practices, and abuses while on duty, and not much has been achieved to challenge the status quo.
The death of Somali Canadian Hodhan Ali in a terror attack in Kismayu together with her husband, is seen as the ultimate price many journalists inside Somalia face, in their line of work.
“It is really a miracle for someone to be a journalist in Somalia in the first place, but then also after becoming a journalist but also becoming an activist and stand up for media freedom in the face of deadly violence, endless hostilities and organised crime, that is particularly targeting media professionals,” says Omar.
“We are telling our government, break the cycle of impunity of crimes committed against journalists, because these crimes are organised and premeditated and exclusively choreographed to attack journalists,” Omar said.
“We are saying the Office of the Special Prosecutor should look at crimes against journalists, that office should be empowered to conduct its duty independently and bring the perpetrators to book,” he noted.
Media practitioners’ concerns
In the region, media practitioners have expressed concerns on governments clamping down on media freedoms like access to information and banning live broadcasts in certain circumstances.
“In the 2022 election period, journalists were threatened and termed as having taken sides and we saw recently journalists being beaten and attacked in a political demonstration, this reverses the gains Kenya has made since the dark era,” said Roselyne Oballa, a former member of the Media Council of Kenya and political editor at the Nation Media Group.
Churchill Otieno, the chairperson of the East African Editors Guild, agrees and believes that without a free press, audiences who are owed the truth will continue to suffer.
“This is worrying because there will be a huge gap between the younger generation of journalists and the old folk who have left and this will impact largely on institutional memory,” said Oballa.
For Omar and his colleague, the future is bright for journalism in Somalia.