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Sword Mightier Than Pen
Commentary by Abdurrahman Warsameh in Mogadishu
Mogadishu, 2 October 2007 - The violent closure of popular radio station Shabelle in Mogadishu in September was the latest in a series of brutal attacks on Somali media in the past few months, in a development that signals a growing pattern of suppression of freedom of expression in the Horn of Africa country.
Somali journalists have recently found themselves targeted by physical attacks, arrests, harassment and robbery perpetrated by all sides in the conflict, even the government institutions set up to be the guardians of freedom of expression.
Since the collapse of the former Somali regime in 1991, the local media has been striving to operate in the most exceptional situations, matched only by a few other places in the world.
Only the print media was operational until the beginning of this decade, when FM radio stations began to mushroom across the country, reaching millions of Somalis who did not have access to the print media because of widespread illiteracy.
But the growth of the media in Somalia has faced strong opposition and continues to be hampered by concerted efforts to curtail and silence independent voices.
In the country's northwest, the government of the self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland does not allow the private ownership of radio stations, and independent media is confined to newspapers whose circulation is limited because of the lower rate of literacy.
Journalists are often arrested and accused of false reporting or ordered to reveal their sources. Newspaper offices are constantly raided and searched without warrants.
In the self autonomous region of Puntland in the northeast, a number of journalists have faced harassment from authorities and some radio stations have been briefly closed down on repeated occasions for reporting excesses by security forces.
However, both Somaliland and Puntland, which have enjoyed relative calm, despite all are considerably more respecting of freedom of expression in comparison with southern Somalia, where the most appalling attacks on the media took place this year in Mogadishu after the transitional federal government, backed by Ethiopian forces and supported by the US, ousted Islamists late last year.
This year alone, seven Mogadishu journalists have been killed, four others shot and wounded and several detained. Others have faced daily harassment.
In August, three prominent journalists were killed: Mahad Ahmed Elmi of Capital Voice radio, shot dead on 11 August; Ali Iman Sharmarke, head of HornAfrik media, killed on the same day by a car bomb as he was returning from the funeral of a slain colleague.
On 24 August, Abdulkadir Mahad Moallin (known as "Kaskey") of Radio Banadir, was killed as he was returning from a training session in the south.
No one has claimed responsibility for any of these assassinations, and there are no official suspects. Somali government officials have promised protection for the media, but so far this promise has been an empty one.
The transitional government, which has shown its unwillingness to tolerate a free press, has repeatedly closed down media outlets in Mogadishu and arrested journalists reporting on security operations by Ethiopian and Somali troops - particularly in cases that have seen civilian rights violated.
On 18 September, Somali government soldiers raided the offices of the Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu, spraying the building with a volley of gunshots, damaging equipment.
Following the raid, 18 staff members were briefly detained and threatened before being released.
Since then, the station has remained closed, with soldiers deployed around the building.
On a statement posted on Shabelle's website on 20 September, the radio administration expressed disappointment over the incident.
"We are sadly announcing that our media network has ceased all its media activity after forces from the transitional government of Somalia randomly fired at our premises in Mogadishu," the statement said.
"The damage caused by heavy gunfire directed at our premises is immense so we cannot continue operating our radio station. All the equipment including our main studio has been destroyed after two and half hours of firing by the government forces."
International media watchdogs and some governments have voiced their concern for the "new wave" of attacks on media in Somalia, "the world's second most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq."
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki moon, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Secretary General Aidan White, said, " Mogadishu has experienced the worst press freedom violations, with journalists facing constant attacks, harassments, libel and intimidation.
"This has sent a chilling message to the journalist community there that not only will they not be protected but in fact they will be targeted if they publish investigative or critical articles. This has led to self-censorship, an exodus of journalists from their profession and crippled news dissemination.
"Despite this crisis and the constant death threats, detention and arrest that our colleagues in Somalia face, many of them are continuing to work independently despite the risk to their personal safety."
The watchdog Reporters Without Borders condemned the action of the Somali security forces and laid the blamed squarely at the feet of the transitional government.
"The transitional federal government's failure to take action in these circumstances in incomprehensible," the group said in a late September statement. "Caught in the crossfire of targeted killings and arbitrary arrests, Somali journalists have reached a critical threshold that is threatening the survival of an independent press in Somalia."
The new UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, following his first visit to the capital said that Somali government leaders had admitted to him in private that the action taken against Shabelle had been a mistake and would not happen again.
A US State Department spokesman said Washington was gravely concerned as the broadcaster had played a vital role in political dialogue and reconciliation.
"We are gravely concerned about the recent violent attacks on the Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu, Somalia, which threatened the lives of Shabelle Media employees and resulted in the Network's subsequent termination of its radio broadcasts," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
Despite the support and advocacy by international watchdogs and foreign governments, as Shabelle radio remains closed and the exodus of journalists increases, the fate of Somali press freedom is in jeopardy.
As a journalist with a family living in Mogadishu, working in a situation in which your hoped-for guardian could imprison you or worse for asking the wrong question is frightening at the best of times. And this nuance to the work takes places against a backdrop of random roadside bombings, sudden gunfights and stray bullets or mortar shells that target indiscriminately. This is our reality.
Abdurrahman Warsameh is an ISN Security Watch correspondent based in Mogadishu.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).