The globe marked the World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday with rallying calls to stop gagging the media. In the East African region, Somali practitioners repeated an old song: calling for an end to impunity now blamed for hurting press freedom there, even more than the danger of Al-Shabaab militants.
Somalia, of course, has been the worst country in the Horn of Africa to work in as a journalist. For the last 15 years, at least 80 journalists have been killed. And it has often been 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 Somali Journalists (Nusoj). This week, they were in Nairobi to mark the World Press Freedom Day at a conference facilitated by the Australian High Commission. Their work used to be that of looking over your shoulder. Now they have to fight with online trolls too.
“I have seen the practise 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,” he told NTV in an interview on Wednesday on the side-lines of the conference co-organised by the Kenya Union of Journalists.
Not that Somalia’s challenge with the trolls or fake news is unique. It is in Kenya too, and in other African countries.
In fact, social media has huge potential and presents a likable target for mainstream journalists across Africa and not only in the region. Tiktok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have become major platforms for mainstream media to churn out their content to targeted audiences, according to one recent study by the Media Council of Kenya.
It has its challenges everywhere. In Somalia, it is competition, and a threat.
“Both broadcast and print media are challenged by social media back home,” Omar said.
“I know some radio stations which have now completely forgotten about updating their [news] websites. That is gone. What is happening now in Somalia is media houses, radio stations [are] using social media, to 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 not as strong as in Kenya to strike down 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. Somalia has no information law yet.
“Journalists are arrested in Somalia, but there is something that has become infamous: a journalist is convicted before even being charged. And what is being used is a penal code of Somalia which is very old, it was enacted into law in 1972,” said Omar.
Somalia has no media council too, meaning journalists can’t have self-regulation like in Kenya. 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 in the country. Within the nine major television networks, the Somali journalists union says that the number of women in leadership in those newsrooms is negligible. Female journalists are also facing discriminatory practises, 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 have to pay in their line of work, and according to union officials, many more deaths have been reported in the years before and after that attack.
“We are telling our government, break the cycle of impunity of crimes committed against journalists, because these crimes are not happening by accident. They are cries that are organised and pre-meditated and exclusively choreographed to attack journalists.
“We are saying that 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 before the law,” noted Omar.
Clamping down on media
In the region, media practitioners have expressed concerns on governments clamping down on media freedoms like access to information and also 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 Obala, a former member of the Board 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 Obala.
For Osman and his colleague, the future is bright for journalism in Somalia.