EDITORIAL | Reports from the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), aimed at journalists who are considered critical of the authorities, give rise to serious concerns about Somalia’s commitment to protecting freedom of expression.
That these reports came out hot on accusations that NISA was working with Al-Shabaab is even more worrying. NISA has already denied reports that they have had a hand in Shabaab attacks on Kenyan troops.
But we would like to point out that such a series of bad publicity only tarnishes the very intentions of an agency formed to protect Somalia and Somalis from existential threats.
More on al-Shabaab later. Our immediate concern is the continuing threat to independent journalists who risk it all to tell Somalia history. This week, Mukhtar Mohamed Atosh, a Voice of America -Somali Service (VOA) reporter, was released after spending time in detention for allegedly publishing malicious information.
He is not the only one. In mid-April, journalist Abdiaziz Ahmed Gurbiye of Goobjoog Radio was arrested and detained for posting a critical comment on Facebook. He wrote about Somalia’s Covid-19 priorities.
Authorities felt, based on their own logic, that they were bordering on national security or another threat. Gurbiye was later released, but only after public noise attracted the attention of foreign civil rights lobbyists.
Somalia should not be like that. Yet Gurbieye’s case was not the only one. Earlier, NISA had fingered Voice of America’s Harun Maruf for having inexplicable “links” that were a “threat to national security.”
The agency did not elaborate on what those threats were, but by attacking a journalist, one of the few Africans who submitted in-depth reports on al-Shabaab appeared to scold a messenger.
Maruf has also co-authored a book on ‘Inside Al-Shabaab’, a masterpiece that Somalia’s intelligence community should pore over, using it as a launch pad to find solutions to a group that threatens the very existence of Not just Somalia but also the region as a whole. Even the U.S. government, an ally of Somalia’s federal government, was not amused by the marking of Maruf.
That security agencies harass journalists is in itself contradictory. First, these agencies are set up to help a budding government protect its citizens, scarred by years of violence.
They are legal bodies designed to make everyone feel safe. Second, NISA is headed by Fahad Yassin, a person who worked for many years as a journalist. It should not be too much for him to be protective of his kind.
Admittedly, Somalia has not been a safe place for journalists. Ranked 163 out of 180 countries, the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says at least one journalist has been killed in Somalia every year since 2006.
The RSF said in its 2020 report that Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries in Africa for media personnel, “with three more journalists killed in 2019, bringing the total killed in the last ten years to 50.
It is the result of corruption and political pressure that puts journalists together and exposes them to threats from the federal government, federal states, non-state actors like Al-Shabaab and other interest groups.
The violence from al-Shabaab is often brutal, yet we cannot get a chance to get back at them through legal channels, such as filing complaints. The government should not imitate this modus operandi because the effects can boomerang on the face.
However, we do not tolerate illegal operations, and we believe that Somalia already applies laws that courts can easily interpret. But when authorities impose extra-constitutional obstacles on journalists, we need to sound the alarm.
One example is the current coverage of Covid-19 cases. The government in Mogadishu as well as some regional governments have insisted on “negative” news coverage of Somalia’s COVID-19 match.
When TV reporter Abdullahi Farah Nur interviewed civilians about the coronavirus crisis in March, the RSF says security forces detained him and accused him of spreading lies. At that time, there were almost three cases in the country. Now there are more than 500.
When the dust on COVID-19 settles, as we hope, questions will arise as to whether the authorities spent time focusing on the image rather than the challenge. What exactly do they mean when they say that only official statements should be reported? On-site journalists have already complained about difficulties in accessing the information on Covid-19, such as the number of people being tested, resulting in new cases every day. At the scene, some officials have admitted that they have been gagged from speaking, according to various press lobbies in Somalia.
The only conclusion from there is that Somali media cannot report correctly on COVID-19 and therefore cannot provide vital information to the public. If the government wanted an ally, journalists could help it, especially in the public consciousness. Choking them is not recommended.
Our hope is that journalists will have an easier time interacting with Somali authorities. Every day, journalists in Somalia go out into the field and know that a grenade or a suicide bomber could explode at any moment. They now do not have to look over their shoulders because of Somali authorities.