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Media Watchdogs Express Alarm Over Somaliland Journalists' Prison Sentences
Nairobi, March 07, 2007 – Press-freedom watchdogs are alarmed over the recent prison sentences of four journalists in the self-declared Somaliland republic. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Publisher Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, of Somaliland's leading independent daily newspaper, Haatuf, was handed a two-year prison sentence Sunday.
His colleagues, editor Ali Abdi Dini, investigative reporter Muhammad-Rashid Farah, and correspondent Muhammad Omar Sheekh, were each given terms of two years and five months by a regional court north of the capital Hargeysa.
Dini and Farah faced three criminal charges including defaming Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin.
The newspaper's publication license was also indefinitely revoked, and the Haatuf Media Network was fined about $800.
The head of Reporters Without Borders' Africa desk, Leonard Vincent, describes to VOA the newspaper's coverage that led to the charges.
“The Haatuf case has been marked throughout by procedural irregularities and the use by the government of disproportionate resources to attack a newspaper, and has concluded with sentences that are more than extreme, ones that have sullied the history of press freedom in Somaliland,” Reporters Without Borders said.
"Haatuf is known to be a controversial newspaper," he said. "It has been very critical of the government and especially of the president and his family."
"The specific articles that are targeted by this procedure were about alleged corruption and use of public goods by the family of the president and especially vehicles belonging to the government for personal purposes by the wife of the president," he countinued.
Vincent says such hostility is unusual for the Somaliland government. He called for President Kahin to pardon the journalists as he had earlier promised.
Somaliland analyst Iqbal Jhazbhay says Somaliland will need time to iron out press freedom and other issues, as, he says, it is a new democracy.
Jhazbhay says he is confident that the president and other authorities will step in and grant the journalists pardon.
"I also can foresee the scenario where the elders, as they have done in the past when they have been deadlocked and stalemated on key political questions and the shaping of a new democracy, that they will intervene," he said.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
"This verdict criminalizes independent reporters for doing their job of holding government officials to account," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "We hope an appeal court will overturn this verdict, and we call on authorities to refrain from seeking prison sentences for press offenses."
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
“We call on the authorities of Somaliland to drop the charges against Haatuf’s chairman and journalists and to let the newspaper resume operation,” said Gabriel Baglo Director of IFJ Africa office. “The authorities of Somaliland who are fighting to convince the international community that they respect democracy are choosing the wrong path if they follow through with these convictions. This is a clear violation of press freedom.”
The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)
Meanwhile, NUSOJ has been condemning the alleged legal action against the journalists and the proceedings of the court. "We condemn this expected and outlawed verdict as calculated move of suppressing press freedom" said Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ Secretary General. "Journalists are detained because of their professional and rightful work of independent journalism" he said.
Somaliland, in northern Somalia, declared independence in 1991 and has held several elections judged by international observers to be free and fair.
It is often showcased as an African success story because of the democratic functioning of its government and its peace relative to the rest of Somalia.