Somalia’s journalists face many threats in the line of duty but the biggest scare on their daily work is lack of legal protection, according to their lobby, the National Union of Somali Journalists (Nusoj).
As such, the United Nations announced a pool of lawyers on hand to defend journalists in Somalia, starting this September.
The programme, known as the Network of Media Lawyers, is sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) which says it has trained the group to defend journalists and news media organisations facing unwarranted political attacks.
The network was established on Monday and was set to formally start working on September 1 after completion of a specialised training programme on fundamental rights, media freedom and freedom of expression.
The pool will initially include 15 lawyers, among them two women.
They are based in Puntland, South West, Jubbaland, Galmudug, Hirshabelle and Mogadishu regions of Somalia. These regions, as well as Somaliland which declared independence but has never been recognised, have seen journalists face some of the harshest detentions on the continent.
In most cases, Nusoj officials say, the jailing is due to poor defence or none; in some situations journalists cannot afford the legal fees. The union also complained of attacks and killing of journalists.
“Journalists and news media organisations need to know there is a pool of capable and well-informed professionals available to defend their rights if and when required,” Omar Farouk Osman, the Secretary-General of Nusoj, said on Monday.
“We are certain that this newly established network is an exciting and concrete step towards building a safer working environment for journalists and for entrenching the importance of media freedom in Somalia.”
The legal network is expected to defend journalists and media houses on a pro bono basis, something the lobby argues could help reverse the dangerous trajectory of nearly all cases involving journalists ending in convictions.
Unesco said refresher courses on defamation law, the right to privacy, national security and state secrets, and judicial proceedings including the right to fair trial and access to information will continuously be offered to the legal group to enable them keep up with protecting journalists.
Andrea Cairola, Programme Specialist at Unesco’s Section for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, said the agency is supporting the programme because it will protect basic rights.
“Unesco is committed to continue supporting judicial stakeholders in Somalia, and Africa, in taking key decisions on issues related to freedom of expression, as well as prosecuting crimes and attacks against journalists, to promote and protect this fundamental right,” he said in a statement.
Somalia’s Chief Justice Bashe Yusuf Ahmed said that judges and other judicial officers need training on trends in media freedom.
“Nothing and no-one will distract us from our duty of providing the necessary legal protections to journalists,” he said after Unesco announced the pool to work with Nusoj.
“We shall include in the curriculum of the institute of judges and lawyers an important component of freedom of expression standards and safety of journalists, in order to inculcate an appreciation of freedom of expression, press freedom and defence of journalists, among our judges and lawyers.”