Reporting under the 'rule of a gun': journalism and press freedom in Somalia

byAdedayo BolajiAdio
Apr 9, 2009 in Miscellaneous

This is the third installment of an IJNet interview series that takes an in depth look at the experience of reporting from conflict and post conflict zones in Africa, and how the media copes in volatile situations. To read last week's interview with a senior Zimbabwean journalist, click here.

Since the end of its military dictatorship in 1991, Somalia has been without a stable government, resulting in violence and clan and regional conflict. Fighting between warlords and political factions has destablized the country causing many Somalis to flee to Europe, the United States, and other African countries. In 2006, renewed clashes between political factions reverted the country to a state of violence and insecurity unseen since 1991.

Amid the climate of violence, the Somali Journalists Network (SOJON) was formed in 2002, led by Somali journalist Omar Faruk Osman, to advocate for press freedom and defend the righs of journalists in the war ravaged country. In 2005, Omar Faruk headed the transformation of SOJON to a trade union movement called the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). That year, he received the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) International Press Freedom Award on behalf of NUSOJ. In 2006, he was chosen to be a member of the international jury of the RSF Press Freedom Award, and was re-elected to be the Secretary General of NUSOJ.

Omar Faruk is a leading press freedom activist and representative of journalists’ unions across eastern Africa and Africa as a whole. In 2007, he was elected to the international executive committee of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) as well as elected Secretary General of the Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA). In 2007, Somalia was also deemed the second deadliest country for journalists (behind Iraq), as measured by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

IJNet Writer Adedayo Bolaji-Adio spoke to Omar Faruk last week.

AB: When and why did you begin working in journalism?
OFO: I started journalism in the early 90s, because I considered it a profession that served the community and this sparked my interest. I felt that journalism could help improve society especially at a time when Somalia was coming out of more than 20 years of military dictatorship and there was widespread criminality. Accordingly, as a young man, I felt that I could better help Somali society as a journalist than with any other profession. I consider myself not a journalist in the academic sense as much as one in practice, though I later went to the London School of Journalism to study journalism.  

AB: You are the Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists. How did the organization come about and what does it strive to achieve?
OFO: The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) was established in 2002 in response to a new draconian media law passed by the former Transitional National Government. The Media Law of 2002 increased penalties for those independent voices that criticized and reported on the government through censorship. While media organizations individually sought to protect themselves, there was no organized group at the time that was advocating for the freedom and rights of Somali journalists. Accordingly, we created the NUSOJ, which was at that time called SOJON (Somali Journalists Network), initially as an association to defend and advocate for the undeniable rights of journalists. 

AB: How has the journalism landscape changed since the collapse of the Somali state following the ouster of Siad Barre's military dictatorship in 1991?
OFO: The media in Somalia has gone through a number of stages. Under the military government of Mohammed Siad Barre, the media was controlled completely by the government. During that era, once a journalist finished their training they were handpicked to work for the government. Thus, if you did not have the backing of the regime, you had no chance in journalism. When the military government fell in 1991, private media emerged -- the print press and then electronic media. Unfortunately, the electronic media, which were mainly radio stations, were soon captured by clan-based warlords advocating their political agendas and inciting violence. Yet, in the print media there was some level of neutrality. By 1999, the era of warlord dominated electronic media ended as new private radio stations emerged. Since then, there has also been the establishment of media houses.

AB: In 2006, Ethiopian forces overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts. How did this affect the media?
OFO: In the era of the Islamic Courts, journalists were not killed but censored. When the Ethiopians arrived, however, there was general chaos and the media became a target. Since December 2006 there has been a wave of killings and arrests of journalists in Somalia; between December 2006 and the end of 2007 alone, nine journalists were assassinated. This and other killings has caused many journalists to flee and earned Somalia the title of the deadliest country for journalists.  

AB: In the face of these attacks, how do journalists generally cope?
OFO: The violence reaffirms the importance of the media to many local journalists because they are being attacked for their work on behalf of society. Because of the violence many private businesses have fled, and media organizations do not have advertisements and can barely cover their costs. As such, journalists are poorly paid, if paid at all. Journalists understand this and also understand that without them there would be no one to distribute information and tell the story of the plight of Somali people. Thus, most journalists work voluntarily with help from their families and the community. Women especially take up odd jobs as maids or secretaries and use these to support journalists and their communities in general. Despite the violence and lack of training, Somali journalists are courageous and dedicated to the profession. 

AB: Given the financial limitations, do journalists rely on citizen journalism or online platforms to acquire stories?
OFO: Citizen journalism is not very well regarded by Somali journalists because anyone can boast about what they feel is important. Nevertheless, journalists rely to a considerable amount on citizen websites to get signals of information which they then investigate and make calls to check for the facts.

AB: Have you ever been harassed or intimidated by the government for your work and have you been tempted to quit?
OFO: There have been a number of cases where I was intimidated and harassed for advocating for press freedom and because of my journalistic work. I even escaped assassination attempts several times. If one speaks for journalists and criticizes their censorship, then you have to be prepared to get attacked by political elites who find you a threat.

Despite this, I have never lacked interest in journalism because I am genuinely interested in problems of our people, their achievements, their concerns, and their issues. Thus continuing in journalism is the best way to help the community, to advocate for them and to be their voice, while also defending those who are the ears and eyes of the people.

AB: If a foreign journalist is interested in reporting in Somalia, what characteristics must they have?
OFO: The most important thing a foreign journalist must do is understand the culture and the realities on the ground. A foreign journalist can never assume that the situation in their country or even one they consider similar to Somalia is in fact the situation in Somalia.

To work in Somalia, then, a foreign journalist should do their research and consult with Somali journalists on the ground to understand the political situation in Somalia and how journalists operate. Otherwise, they might fall victim to the wrong hands and the systematic killing of journalists. 

AB: What lessons can journalists in places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Niger Delta learn from the Somali experience?
OFO: Journalists in these countries can learn from Somalia that journalists can only be effective if they work professionally, impartially, and independently especially in a place where there is no rule of law. In Somalia there is a rule of gun, so it is up to journalists to maintain the integrity of the profession and seek the truth for the benefit of the public in an uncompromising manner. Journalists must place value on the basics -- what is required to investigate, interview someone, or write a story. Journalists must always understand the needs of their societies and know exactly what their goals are in the newsroom.

To learn more about the National Union of Somali Journalists, visit http://www.nusoj.org.