Top Developments

  • Al-Shabaab terrorizes media through violence, threats, censorship.

  • Many local journalists flee into exile, leaving a void in coverage.

Key Statistic

  • 6: Journalists killed in direct relation to their work in 2009.

Somalia was among the world's deadliest countries in 2009, surpassing violent hot spots such as Iraq and Pakistan. As conflict continued between the weak Transitional Federal Government and multiple insurgent groups, nine journalists were killed in direct connection to their work, seven of them in the volatile capital, Mogadishu. An exodus of local journalists continued throughout the year, and few international journalists dared travel into the country for firsthand reporting, according to CPJ research. As a result, the amount and quality of news coverage of Somalia's political and humanitarian crisis suffered greatly, CPJ found.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, considered a moderate Islamic politician, was elected president in January after peace talks in Djibouti, but the vote did little to foster peace. The two main insurgent groups, Al-Shabaab and Hisbul Islam, accused Sharif of being a puppet of Western governments. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden denounced the new president in a recorded statement in March and urged militant groups to topple him, according to news reports. Al-Shabaab, which has reported links to Al-Qaeda, took control of most of southern Somalia by May, including areas within a mile of the presidential palace in Mogadishu.

Twenty-one journalists were killed in Somalia between 2005 and 2009, but only about half died in crossfire during combat situations. The others were targeted by assassins and murdered. As insurgents drew ever closer to the capital in 2009, conditions for journalists there continued to deteriorate, particularly in the volatile Bakara Market district where major media houses Radio Shabelle and HornAfrik radio were based. "They will kill a journalist simply for being a journalist," said Farhan Ali, who served as minister of information during a portion of 2009, part of an ever-changing cast of federal government officials.

The press faced grave dangers from multiple sources. On the first day of 2009, Shabelle reporter Hassan Mayow was shot twice in the head by suspected government soldiers in Afgoye, a town roughly 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Mogadishu. According to local journalists who witnessed the murder and spoke to CPJ, soldiers stopped Mayow on his way to a press conference and accused him of collaborating with insurgent groups before shooting him. Ahmed Abdisalam, who started the year as information minister, said the government would investigate. But Abdisalam was soon out of a job, and no investigation materialized.

The perilous conditions in Mogadishu's Bakara Market and the ruthlessness of insurgents were on display in February when Said Tahlil Ahmed, managing director of HornAfrik, was murdered. Masked assailants shot Tahlil as he and several other journalists walked through the market to a press conference organized by Al-Shabaab. Local journalists told CPJ that Al-Shabaab had summoned journalists to express its disapproval of local coverage of the presidential election, which it had dismissed as illegitimate. A spokesman for Al-Shabaab denied responsibility for the attack.

Tahlil, colleagues said, had hoped the presidential election would be a turning point for Somalia and that journalists would be able to carry out their work unharmed. Freelance journalist Sahal Abdulle said Tahlil had insisted on attending the press conference as a way to encourage the local press corps to carry out its work even in the face of danger.

Shabelle reporter Abdirisak Warsame also lost his life in Bakara Market. The recently married journalist, described as a workaholic by colleagues, was shot in crossfire between Al-Shabaab insurgents and government soldiers as he was walking to the station for his morning broadcast, local journalists told CPJ. Shabelle lost yet another veteran journalist in June when unidentified gunmen targeted and murdered Director Mukhtar Hirabe and wounded News Editor Ahmed Hashi, also in Bakara Market.

Radio Shabelle and HornAfrik have suffered extraordinary losses in recent years, CPJ research shows. Five Shabelle journalists were killed between 2005 and 2009; two HornAfrik staff members and two journalists working for a HornAfrik affiliate, Capital Voice, died during that same time period.

The shooting of Hirabe appeared to be retaliation by Al-Shabaab for his refusal to provide the insurgent group with a monthly payment of motor fuel, Shabelle Chairman Abdimaalik Yusuf told CPJ. In the aftermath of the Hirabe killing, Shabelle's executive board appointed a committee to manage the station, but did not disclose the members' names in hopes of protecting their lives, Yusuf said. But the station soon received a phone call from insurgents threatening the new managers by name. "There is no single hour of the day passing without a threatening call from Al-Shabaab to Shabelle radio. They always call to censor any item that they deem to be critical to them," Yusuf said.

The death of Hirabe, a popular and well-regarded journalist, reverberated across the Somalia media community. "I know that his passing will leave a void in the Somali media, in the hearts of all those who knew him," former Shabelle online editor Bashir Nur wrote on the CPJ Blog. Fifteen journalists, primarily editors and producers for media outlets in the capital, met in June and announced they were suspending their work over security concerns. "We can no longer operate independently and impartially, and our lives are in danger because of the chaotic situation in our country," said a statement signed by the journalists. Some of these journalists left the country soon after; others resumed working after a hiatus.

Two journalists from Radio IQK, a station that focuses on Islamic issues, were killed in crossfire. Veteran reporter Nur Muse Hussein died of injuries in May, a month after being struck by two shots to his right leg. The reporter was covering clashes between militia groups in the central town of Beledweyn. One of the most senior journalists working in the region, Hussein had started his career in 1970 as a journalist for the Somali National News Agency, local journalists told CPJ. A second Radio IQK journalist, Mohamud Mohamed Yusuf, was struck by crossfire after leaving an affiliate in northern Mogadishu in July, local journalists told CPJ. Heavy shelling prevented anyone from attending to Yusuf for three hours, the National Union of Somali Journalists said.

In December, three journalists were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a Benadir University graduation ceremony in the capital. In all, the explosion claimed the lives of at least 23 people, including four top government officials, according to news reports. Hassan Zubeyr, a cameraman for Al-Arabiya television, and Mohamed Amin, a Radio Shabelle reporter, were pronounced dead at the scene. Abdulkhafar Abdulkadir, a freelancer, died at a local hospital later in the day. Al-Shabaab was suspected of carrying out the attack, local journalists said.

With Al-Shabaab in control of most of the country, censorship of broadcast content and the closing of radio stations escalated across Somalia. In September, an Al-Shabaab "information officer" in the southern town of Belet-Hawo barred radio stations from airing music, criticizing the militant group, and interviewing federal government officials. Militants later stormed Belet-Hawo's Radio Maandeeq, confiscating equipment and forcing the station off the air. In the south-central town of Baidoa, militants closed two stations in October. One, Radio Warsan, resumed broadcasting a month later but was forced to air Al-Shabaab propaganda, its director said. The other, Radio Jubba, remained off the air in late year. In the southwest port of Merca, Al-Shabaab ordered journalists at Radio Shabelle's regional station to provide it with broadcast material in advance so it could be screened. Shabelle, fearing the affiliate would be overtaken by Al-Shabaab, dismantled the Merca station in July.

The government also harassed foreign news media. Police raided the offices of Al-Arabiya television in Mogadishu in August, confiscating mobile phones and camera equipment, station manager Hassan Subeyr told CPJ.

Kidnapped journalists Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian, and Nigel Brennan, an Australian, were freed in November after 15 months in captivity. News reports said relatives had paid a ransom. In an interview with the Canadian broadcaster CTV, Lindhout said the captors had beaten and tortured her. "It was extremely oppressive. I was kept by myself at all times. I had no one to speak to. I was normally kept in a room with a light, no window. I had nothing to write on or with. There was very little food," she told CTV.

One journalist was reported kidnapped in 2009: Universal TV Director Ibrahim Mohamed was seized along the road from Afgoye to Mogadishu, Universal newscaster Ahmed Tooya said. Mohamed was freed five days later unharmed, Tooya said, and the reason for the kidnapping was not established.

Kidnappings and deadly violence proved powerful deterrents to international journalists. "There are now almost no foreign correspondents visiting Somalia," Paul Salopek, a veteran correspondent, told CPJ. "The net result is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world is more invisible than ever." Most international media organizations did not permanently assign correspondents to Mogadishu, relying instead on reports from local Somali journalists – who themselves were diminishing in numbers.

CPJ research shows at least 30 journalists have fled Somalia in recent years after facing work-released violence or persecution. Somali journalists and organizations, however, said the number may be much higher. Abdukadir Ahmed, a former Radio Shabelle reporter who started a union of exiled Somali journalists, said more than 60 Somali journalists had moved to nearby Kenya and Uganda. Politicians, too, fled in high numbers, leaving barely enough to field a quorum in parliament.

In comparison to the rest of the country, the semi-autonomous republic of Puntland remained relatively stable under the leadership of President Abdirahman Mohamed who said in a January press conference that he would "uphold freedom of the press as a cornerstone of good governance." Despite those comments, online journalist Jama Ayanle was imprisoned in March on the orders of the deputy police commissioner, the journalist told CPJ. A judge in the port town of Bossasso sentenced Ayanle, a reporter for the news Web sites Laasqoray and Dayniile to a two-year sentence for "insulting Puntland leaders." No details supporting the charge were disclosed; Ayanle was freed on a presidential pardon after serving 20 days.

The government of the breakaway northern republic of Somaliland cracked down on the independent press throughout the year. As the ruling party prepared for elections – which were repeatedly postponed – critical reporting was deemed a criminal offense by a politicized judiciary, local journalists told CPJ. Reporters working for the Baadiyenews and Berberanews Web sites were briefly detained by police.

The government's main target, however, was the Dutch-based Radio Horyaal. In July, Managing Director Mohamed Osman and News Editor Ahmed Dhuhul were arrested and accused of inciting violence for reporting on a conference between the president and clan elders regarding a land dispute. The two were eventually released on bail after 15 days at Somaliland's Criminal Investigation Department in Hargeisa. Police arrested Osman again in September outside parliament and detained him for five days without charge, Horyaal reporter Abdirizan Dubad told CPJ. Police in the central town of Burao also arrested Radio Horyaal reporter Fowsi Suleiman and detained him for 22 days without charge.

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